EL TRIUNFO DE LA CRUZ, Honduras -- The health center in this sleepy
little Caribbean coastal village has a map dotted
with blue and red thumbtacks.
The blue tacks mark neighborhoods where people are sick with AIDS-related
diseases. The red mark areas where they have
The map is designed to raise awareness of the AIDS crisis among the
people of the village, descendants of Caribbean Indians
and former African slaves who carry on a unique language and culture, known as Garifuna (ga-REE-foo-na).
The map doesn't seem to be working.
At least 49 of Triunfo's 2,500 Garifuna residents have died of diseases
related to AIDS, including nine adults and four children
this year. Another 89 people are sick and may die soon, according to the local nurse.
Almost none of the village residents who were interviewed acknowledged that AIDS is much of a threat to them, however.
``There's AIDS in the whole world,'' said Eugenio Gamboa, expressing
a sentiment repeated by many Triunfo residents. ``It's
no worse here than anywhere else.''
The problem in Triunfo may not be unique. As Honduran health officials
begin to collect statistics on AIDS rates in Garifuna
villages along the Caribbean coast, they are uncovering evidence of an alarming epidemic.
Yet the Garifuna, who have been marginalized and denied access to
formal education and health care for centuries, refuse to
believe they have a serious problem.
``This community is dying of AIDS, and the Garifuna simply deny it,'' said Lilian Cardena, the health nurse in Triunfo.
The crisis came to light in September, when a Health Ministry survey
concluded that up to 20 percent of the Garifuna living in
Triunfo and some nearby coastal towns probably carry the HIV virus.
If vigorous educational measures are not taken soon, Dr. Jorge Fernandez
of the Health Ministry warned, villages such as
Triunfo might soon ``disappear'' because of AIDS-related deaths.
Instead of motivating Garifuna leaders to step up AIDS prevention
efforts, the warning put them on the defensive. Garifuna
community organizers say they have been stigmatized.
Area's highest rate
They note that AIDS is a serious problem throughout Honduras and
deny that it's more prevalent among the Garifunas. Nearly
8,000 cases of AIDS have been reported among the 5.8 million people of Honduras, the highest rate in Central America.
Health officials admit they have a problem throughout the country.
``We do not want to stigmatize the Garifuna,'' said Dr. Daisy Guardiola,
the Health Ministry's chief epidemiologist for the region
covering the Caribbean coast. ``Nor do we want to give other people the impression that they are safe as long as they are not
having sex with a Garifuna person. It's simply not true.''
But Guardiola said it would also be a mistake to ignore the seriousness of the problem among the Garifuna.
Garifuna leaders argue that AIDS rates are high in villages like
Triunfo because men go away to work in cities and return home
when they are dying of AIDS. The implication is that the real problem is in the cities, not in the Garifuna communities.
It's true that some of the area's men roam far from their villages.
All Triunfo residents speak both Garifuna and Spanish.
Many in New York
A few of the men also speak some English, which they learn on their
frequent travels to the United States -- particularly New
York -- in search of work. One estimate suggests that there are 100,000 native Garifuna speakers in the world, with 30,000 of
them living in the Bronx.
Men who stay behind are outnumbered by women. Everyone in Triunfo
acknowledges that the men typically have sexual
relations with three or four women.
Health workers say promiscuity and irregular use of condoms probably
account for the high rates of AIDS infection. The
silence surrounding AIDS does not help matters, they say. For reasons that no one seems to fully understand, the Garifuna
show no shame about sex but are deeply shamed by AIDS.
AIDS cases are typically not diagnosed until patients are seriously
ill, and they usually die in their own homes a few months
The veil of secrecy surrounding AIDS makes it much harder to convince
villagers that they need to take the problem seriously,
according to Cardena.
``AIDS isn't really much of a problem here,'' said Fausto Marin,
a Garifuna who employs two young women to sew clothing,
which is sold in the nearby town of Tela. ``If there was much AIDS, you would hear more about it.''
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