MOZAMBIQUE: A golden voice in AIDS prevention

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

She has been mesmerizing fans for three decades.

Singer Elisa Domingas Jamisse, or Mingas, is one of Mozambique's most famous celebrities. Her music, a mixture of Afro sounds that gives prominence to the rhythms of the Chope people of southern Mozambique, has thrilled audiences the world over.

Mingas garnered applause for her work both as a solo artist and for her collaborations with icons such as Miriam Makeba and Jimmy Dludlu at the mega-concert she held in the capital, Maputo, in December to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the start of her career.

The trajectory of her career has coincided with the spread of HIV. Just as Mingas' career was taking off, AIDS was also beginning to gain ground. The pandemic is now just under 30 years old.

At the time, little was known about the HIV virus, but many artists' careers were ending prematurely because of AIDS. The disease came to the singer's attention during her first international tour in 1987.

AIDS had already hit the artistic community in Europe and musicians there would ask her about the epidemic in Africa. "That was when we saw that there was something seriously wrong, but we didn't have access to information. We didn't know anything," she recalled.

When she returned to her native land and tried to talk about the issue, she was met with disbelief. "A lot of people thought that AIDS was just a story made up to get the population to reduce their number of partners, or to buy more condoms, or to have fewer children," she said.

Seeing the epidemic spread in Mozambique, Mingas decided to use her celebrity to talk about this previously taboo subject. Her involvement in anti-AIDS efforts led to her participation in the CD 'Vidas Positivas' (Positive Lives) in 2002, a project by the non-governmental organisation, Doctors Without Borders.

Mingas wrote and sang "Xini Xiku Kluphaku," which translates as, "What Worries You in Life?" "I thought of this song because stigmatisation is one of the things that kill most. I wanted to say, 'No matter how much of a problem AIDS is, open yourself up, because that way we can live longer lives,'" she explained.

The song is still popular today, and always has a profound effect on audiences in Mozambique. "Everyone is moved because most families have lost someone to AIDS," Mingas said. "It's sad as well, because the song reminds people that the problem really does exist."
Targeting the artistic community

According to Mingas, artists - musicians, painters, actors, writers - are particularly vulnerable to HIV because of their lifestyle. "Because of the nature of our work we're surrounded by fans, and many artists end up letting down their guard and don't protect themselves. We've lost various musicians because of AIDS," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

As the epidemic has evolved, artists have begun to deal with the issue in their songs, paintings and novels, but Mingas stressed that "Many people are unable to reduce the number of partners they have or practice safe sex. We've participated in campaigns, we've sung, we've written books, but we still haven't changed people's behaviour."

The Southern African Development Community Artists Against HIV and AIDS Forum (SAAAF) was launched in January to work for greater behaviour change after a joint declaration by artists from Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe performing at a festival in Harare, Zimbabwe in November 2007.

The Forum will carry out surveys on HIV and AIDS and provide data on the number of artists living with the disease, in addition to creating a network of contacts with other HIV organisations and services in the region. "I think that more people and more involvement to talk about this problem is what's needed," said Mingas.

The new body will also approach the governments of the Southern African Development Community, the international community and individuals to help artists deal with the pandemic and capacitate the executive committee to reach its objectives.

One of the Forum's tasks is to encourage all artists to undergo voluntary counselling and testing, and to guarantee that they receive all the necessary support if they test HIV positive.

"Artists have not managed to get help from existing organisations," said artist Setephen Chifunyise, the Forum's spokesperson. "As a result, many of them die in silence and isolation, without the support of their colleagues, artistic organisations or institutions that work with HIV."