Luanda — A trendy new youth centre is aiming to grab the imagination of Angolan teenagers, and help them steer clear of HIV infection.
Educating the young about the risks of unprotected sex is vital in any HIV/AIDS prevention programme, but the Jango centre in Viana, 15 km from the capital, Luanda, goes a step further by providing the children with a much-needed place to meet friends, let off steam and chill out.
Funded by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), run by a local children's organisation, Cuidados da Infancia, and supported by the NGO, Population Services International, Jango hammers home its safe-sex message, but in a fun way, designed to get teenagers back into a positive cycle of socialising and learning.
"We can talk to youth about high-risk sex, but we also need to give youth the opportunity and the tools to choose a better life for themselves," said Melanie Luick, UNICEF's HIV/AIDS Project Officer.
"One of the chief protective factors against HIV/AIDS is feeling engaged and part of a community - feeling connected to other members of a group. After war, you can imagine - with so much displacement in Angola, that's a major challenge," she said.
The single positive aspect of Angola's devastating 27-year conflict, which ended last year, was that it prevented people from moving around and helped curb the spread of HIV.
The latest UN figures are three years old, but show that 5.5 percent of the population is infected with the virus. That pales in comparison to the 20-percent-plus rates of Angola's neighbours such as Zambia, Namibia and Botswana. But with three million Angolans now returning to their homes, in a country whose health and education systems remain decimated by war, all the conditions are in place for the disease to grow exponentially.
Already, UNAIDS data for 1999 to 2001 show that the virus has ballooned by 250 percent among both female commercial sex workers and pregnant women who attended antenatal clinics.
"The fact that there was the same tremendous increase in two separate sub-populations in less than two years is very, very preoccupying," Luick said.
Given that 70 percent of the population is under 24, empowering the youth and giving them a voice by helping them rebuild their social fabric, as well as teaching them about safe sex, is vital if they are to push their government for a better future for Angola.
The Jango centre, housed in a well-equipped, clean building in a poor suburb, offers 1,200 children between the ages of 12 and 24 activities ranging from basketball to information technology and English lessons.
With an atmosphere more like a trendy youth club, Jango uses television and music - including a "cool guy" who raps anti-AIDS messages - to encourage lively debate on the issues surrounding sexual ethics, rape and sexually transmitted diseases.
"HIV is not just about HIV, but about the society in which these kids live, and their ability to use their minds to take themselves out of it," Luick said.
Counsellors are on hand to help with HIV/AIDS issues as well as some of the deeper problems inevitably bubbling under the surface after almost three decades of war.
Topics raised are channelled into the theatre group, which performs at the club each Saturday during half-time at the weekly basketball tournament and takes its plays out to the local community.
"It's a good way of getting to more kids ... if one kid is worried about a problem, there are probably many, many more kids who have that same problem," Luick explained.
Condoms, on sale at four for two kwanzas ($0.02) - a fraction of the cost at a Luanda pharmacy - have become a cool, fashion statement, transformed into hair decorations and adorning the belts and t-shirts of many of the Jango teenagers.
"I really enjoy coming to the centre because of the debates and the theatre we have about HIV," said 15-year-old Joao Francisco Bernardo, sporting a condom in his earring.
"Before I came to the centre I had a lot of partners, but I didn't know I was supposed to use a condom. Since I've come to the centre, I always carry one ... even though it might be in my ear," he said.
Bernardo is not unusual in having sex at such a young age. Girls typically enter into sexual relationships at 14 years, or even younger if there is sexual violence within the family.
Boys, following the example of their fathers who often have a wife, a kept woman, occasional girlfriends as well as commercial sex partners, can become sexually active as young as 12 or 13, Luick noted.
"We know absolutely that kids in Angola tend to start having sex before they reach 15," Luick said. "That's why we need to start talking to them when they are 12."
The Jango centre's novel approach - using peer group pressure instead of doctors, nurses and parents laying down the law - appears to be working, even though the centre has only been open for three months.
"Before, any woman who showed up was good enough and we had to have her ... because when you see a cute girl, you want to be with her, you want her to be yours and you want everyone to know she's yours," said 22-year-old Victor Pinto Belengue. "But because of the things we've heard about HIV/AIDS, the youth of Angola are starting to have fewer sexual partners."
Luick and her colleagues at Jango hope that by nurturing the young, Angola can escape an HIV/AIDS epidemic.
"Angola still has a chance to turn itself around, and to avoid the fate of its neighbours. Now is the window of opportunity for Angola to really start addressing HIV/AIDS," she said.
"The first step is prevention," she added, urging the Angolan government and international donors to focus funds on prevention methods, rather than ploughing money into expensive antiretroviral drugs which are costly to administer.
"We still can make a difference in reducing the number of people getting HIV/AIDS. That, over the long run, saves the government and civil society both money and anguish," Luick noted.
UNICEF currently runs two centres, each at an annual cost of around $150,000, and plans to open another three around the country by year-end, funds permitting.