A latex bubble in Zanzibar

STONETOWN, Zanzibar George and Mike are cocky about their sexual exploits until Ali arrives. “I’m a f__ machine!” sings George,…


George and Mike are cocky about their sexual exploits until Ali arrives.

“I’m a f__ machine!” sings George, dancing around a group of the island’s renowned “beach boys” who are relaxing on a bench near the harbour in Stonetown.

“There is no one here with AIDS, and I get tested every month,” says Mike, bragging wide-eyed that he sleeps with three female tourists a month.

Then 48-year-old Ali puts them in their place.

Short and haggard, his skeletal torso leaving lumpy angles in his T-shirt, Ali is a veteran beach boy who shoots heroin and, like the rest of the enigmatic group of men who linger near tourist haunts, says he makes money sleeping with or dating Western women.

But while Ali is open that he’s dying of AIDS, which he got in 2000 through unprotected sex, many of the beach boys around him refuse to get tested for fear of social persecution, he says angrily.

Instead, it appears many of them have turned to the relatively new and still misunderstood condom to pretend HIV/AIDS can’t reach them — despite the fact that some in their ranks also share needles to shoot drugs.

So, while condoms have finally arrived on an island that once shunned them, a lack of education and a tendency to disengage problems that challenge Muslim beliefs could be burying the threat of the disease under a convenient layer of latex.

Fear of knowledge is understandable here.

Beach boys who die of AIDS in Zanzibar are often buried without ceremony and their wives won’t even attend if there is a funeral, says Ali.

As a result, the beach boys prefer to remain in the dark despite the potential their lifestyles create to spread a killer disease.

Disconnection has long been the Zanzibar way to stomach the influx of liberal ideas tourists bring toward sex and drugs on an island that is somehow both an Islamic version of utopia and a hedonist paradise.

“There’s this whole illusion here that nobody’s having sex,” says Kate Spence, a Canadian NGO worker in Stonetown.

“Everybody knows it’s happening, but it’s not talked about.”

But this preference to disengage uncomfortable realities creates problems.

Just five years ago it meant beach boys and anyone else interested in casual sex in Zanzibar couldn’t buy a condom to protect themselves.

Now that condoms have arrived, the newest roadblocks preventing high-risk Zanzibaris from living safer are needles and education.

Needles are impossible to get from pharmacies if you’re a drug user, says Ali.

As a result, most share them.

A 2006 report for the International Aids Conference in Toronto underlined the dangers this creates.

It found nearly 40 per cent of those using drugs in Zanzibar inject them with needles.

And 46 per cent of those people share them.

Thirty per cent of needle users had HIV or AIDS; 22 per cent had hepatitis C and 17 per cent had syphilis.

The numbers are far higher than the government’s official 0.8 per cent HIV/AIDS infection rate and show the potential for an epidemic if something isn’t done.

Education is the other worry.

Many Zanzibaris — who currently aren’t receiving much sex-ed in school — believe condoms can give you skin cancer, or are only 25 per cent effective or only protect against pregnancy, says Spence.

Education by doctors on AIDS currently goes something like, “don’t get it,” she says.

And, for all the newfound reliance on condoms to save the day, their availability is still less than obvious.

A quick survey of pharmacies in Stonetown found none on the shelves, though beach boys say you can find them for $2 a box.

Finding condoms in the past was an issue but isn’t now, says Nuru Mbarouk, a co-ordinator with the Zanzibar AIDS Commission.

I tell her I searched for them and couldn’t find any at several pharmacies — a potentially worrying situation on an island where Western tourists come to sleep with each other and the locals.

Tourists bring their own condoms, while locals buy them in the stores, she says, conceding her biggest worry remains the local youth.

To prove her point, though, her assistant, Seilman, takes me on a walk to find a Zanzibar rubber.

“Over here,” he says, pointing at a hidden store with a cellphone sign above it.

Inside, two men sit reclined on their sides — the true island posture — behind glass display cases filled with vitamins and bandages. Seilman motions for me to stay back and approaches one of them.

He speaks so softly I can’t hear him from two feet behind.

The pharmacist motions to one corner of the display case, where three  Roughriders and two Salama condom packs sit.

But it feels as if we’ve just price shopped a Kalashnikov, not a condom. I can’t imagine doing this as a Muslim local.

The situation at beach resorts — where much of the casual sex actually happens during drunken parties — is far worse, says Spence’s co-worker Jess Loziuk.

The two were eating lunch in Nungwi, Zanzibar’s most popular resort town, when their waiter approached after realizing they worked for an NGO.

He begged for two boxes of condoms, as did the bar’s European owner and the bartender, she says.

In the end, the only way people will protect themselves isn’t latex, it’s knowledge, says Spence, who is hopeful of a new push to bring sex education to schools.

Ali agrees. “They (beach boys) trust the condom is working, you know? But they don’t know, sometimes maybe the condom is cutting, maybe they get a scratch.”

Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.

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