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African officials begin to take lead in battle against AIDS epidemic

Page 2 of 2 -- ''Everyone in that room, and others outside, all rushed forward and said we want to test as well," said Scholastica Kimaryo, the UN Development Program's resident representative in Lesotho.

Kimaryo said the commotion at the testing caused the health minister, Dr. Motloheloa Phooko, to panic. ''He was saying people hadn't been counseled, that they needed to be counseled. That led to a big debate because people have a lot of life-threatening problems here, and who gets counseled for any of them? We have 10 or 11 social workers in the whole country, and maybe we have one psychiatrist, so if we wait for enough trained counselors, we will all be dead."

The testing went on. ''At least 200 people tested there," Kimaryo said. ''Once the leadership tested, people could see that this was fine, that they must do it."

Phooko said in a telephone interview this week from Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, that the national testing program has had ''tremendous" results in recent months, although he had no countrywide figures. He said that more than half of the ministers and deputy ministers had taken tests and that members of both houses of Parliament -- 156 elected officials -- have all pledged to take tests. In one ministry, Trade and Industry, 80 percent of workers have been tested this year, Kimaryo said.

In Zambia, Vice President Nevers Mumba, a longtime Christian leader who has promoted abstinence as the key factor in fighting AIDS, took an HIV test last week, the third prominent person in the country to be publicly tested. The others were former president Kenneth Kaunda and Sports Minister Gladys Nyirongo.

While Mumba pronounced himself happy with the results, he also said that those who take the test should not feel pressured to disclose their status. ''I hope my colleagues will gain courage to be tested," he said.

Last week, the editor of The Post, a Zambian newspaper, Fred M'membe, took an HIV test and told his doctor to first release the results to the newspaper staff. After the doctor announced that the test was negative, M'membe explained that he was ''morally required" to take the test because he had been advocating others to do so. ''This puts me in a strong position to fight this horrible virus," he said.

Two days later, Cecilia Makota, coordinator of Zambia Women in Agriculture and Development, a nongovernmental group, said M'membe inspired her to get tested for HIV.

In South Africa, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, 76, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, found another way to encourage a more concerted effort against AIDS -- speaking about AIDS at the funerals of his son, Prince Nelisuzulu Benedict Buthelezi, 43, and daughter, Princess Mandisi Sibukakonke, 48, who both died of AIDS-related illnesses this year.

Many here drew the contrast between Buthelezi's words and Mbeki's comments in an interview last year with The Washington Post in which he said he did not personally know of anyone who had died of AIDS.

At his children's funerals, and at a subsequent speech to Parliament, Buthelezi said strong leadership is the only way to fight AIDS.

''Until now, the leadership in the war against HIV/AIDS has been disastrous and has compounded the problem," he told the Parliament last month in Cape Town. ''Similar leadership provided in respect of a war against an external enemy would cause people to openly talk about treason and collusion with the invader."

In an interview this week, Buthelezi said many leaders remain hesitant to say much about AIDS because ''of the morals of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease. But they should not be ashamed."

Since he spoke out, Buthelezi said, he has received many letters from ''ordinary people" encouraging him to say more.

''This disease is a terrible thing," he said. ''I know I will be more involved. I know I will be more involved at home. My daughter left behind an 8-year-old orphan, and my wife and I will look after her now. We are not young, but we will look after the young. This is what this disease does."

John Donnelly can be reached at donnelly@globe.com 

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