NAIROBI, Kenya -- AIDS killed Caroline Akinyi's parents 11 years ago, when she was 3. Yet even today, she cannot fathom a disease -- let alone a sexually transmitted one -- that killed her mother and father.
Instead, she believes her parents were bewitched.
Education is a cornerstone of a new $150 million U.S. effort to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa. Yet in the continent's war against the disease, superstition and tradition often prove more influential than leaflets and television ad campaigns.
Many Kenyans believe condoms, after abstinence the best though hardly foolproof way to avoid infection, have tiny holes, rendering them ineffective, say health workers and educators in Kibera, a Nairobi slum.
Others think the lubricant added to many condoms contains HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Their reasoning: condoms became prevalent only when AIDS did.
And even when condoms are viewed as an effective deterrent to infection, they may not get used.
"In Africa, men decide whether to have a condom in the house," says Angela Lomosi, director of the privately funded school for AIDS orphans that Akinyi attends.
The disease's great ally is poverty.
Sex is one of the few pleasures Kibera's poor can afford. Television, movie theaters and restaurants are a distant dream for most residents, although downtown Nairobi is less than two miles away.
For the slum's mostly semiliterate population, books and magazines, even newspapers, are too expensive.
Joblessness, compounded by Kenya's worst economic crisis in 30 years, has idled thousands of youths, leaving them penniless, bored and with few diversions. They often ignore no-sex admonitions from the country's Protestant and Roman Catholic churches because sex is one of the few aspects of their lives they control -- or think they do.
Sports? Amid Kibera's labyrinth of dirt paths, car-swallowing ruts and open sewers, there's little space for a basketball court or soccer pitch.
Men who migrate to Nairobi from rural Kenya in search of low-paying jobs, leaving their wives and children behind, often turn to prostitutes, who must reduce their fees if they insist their clients use condoms.
The result is a wave of AIDS spreading across Kenya that has not yet begun to crest.
Among a population estimated at 30 million people, the disease already has killed 760,000 Kenyans and infected 1.9 million others, according to the Ministry of Health.
President Daniel arap Moi declared AIDS a national disaster in October, but many observers believe he was only pandering to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for a renewal of aid.
For AIDS orphans like Akinyi, one of 6 million in eastern and southern Africa, the future is tenuous. The Kenyan national treasury, already drained by corruption and mismanagement, has little left to combat AIDS, much less to help fund the education Akinyi craves.
Still, Akinyi yearns to be a dressmaker or fashion designer, a dream interrupted when she and her two sisters were shuttled between her dead parents' relatives.
"I felt bad when I wasn't in school. Now that I am, I don't want to leave until I'm trained," she says.
As she speaks, on a pockmarked wall above her reads a sign, "AIDS is a consuming fire."
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