Combatting HIV/AIDS in Africa: Soccer Instead of Unsafe Sex

About 20 men sat on chairs at the HIV/AIDS Resource Center in Katuna, Uganda, intently watching a match between Manchester United and Chelsea on a small television. Along with the pool table, board games, and additional television downstairs, soccer games provide a much needed distraction for the long-distance truckers who have to wait for their vehicles to be cleared by customs before entering Rwanda.

But just eight months ago, instead of television and camaraderie among workers, the easiest diversion for truckers was sex. Katuna is one of many towns along what is known as the Northern Transport Corridor -- a span of highway that stretches from Mombasa, Kenya through Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and all the way to Djibouti.

In the past, the truckers were often delayed for days on the border, giving them little to do. Boredom -- and drinking -- often led to unsafe sex with prostitutes at the truck stops along the highway. As a result, truck drivers have one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in Eastern Africa. Unfortunately, the virus doesn't stop with them, and is often spread to their spouses.

Now, thanks to the work of the Solidarity Center , a non-profit launched by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organziations (AFL-CIO) to empower workers around the world by helping them form unions, and Uganda's Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union (ATGWU), which has about 3,500 members in Uganda, the amount of time truckers spend on the border has been reduced from days to just hours. The union has worked through bargaining with the government to reduce the amount of time it takes their paper to go through which reduced the amount of free time they have on the border. When they don't have as much free time, they're not as likely to engage in unsafe sex.

According to Romano Ojiambo-Ochieng, ATGWU General Secretary, the union and the Solidarity Center has set up four resources centers in Uganda under the ROADS (Regional Outreach Addressing AIDS through Development Strategies) project with Family Health International (FHI) and funding from US AID. These resource centers "provide alternative activities to truck drivers as they wait for their travel papers to be processed." Many of the things truckers can do at the centers are educational, getting information about how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, as well as working conditions, workplace safety, and reproductive health.

The Katuna resource center, like many others dotted along the transport corridor, offers training and education to truckers and sex workers, and provides reading materials like pocket guides explaining sexually transmitted infections and the dangers of letting them go untreated. More than 150,000 truck drivers and community members have received prevention services, care and support information through one-on-one or community group outreach.

The Center also provides free testing for truck drivers, already more than 5,000 of them to date. "We are having truck drivers waiting for trucks to be cleared, coming to the recreation center to access our services," says Edward Oboth Ofumbi, coordinator for the resource center in Katuna. "In the process they end up getting tested for HIV... some of them come thinking that they are really infected but they are actually not infected." And some, says Edward, then change their behavior by using protection. They also direct infected truckers to local medical services, and reproductive health information for both truckers and their spouses.

In addition, the Center builds solidarity among truck drivers, providing a place for them to channel their industry grievances, while also successfully encouraging them to join unions. Low wages, lack of benefits, and long absences from home put truckers at high risk of HIV infection; improving their working conditions through collective bargaining is an important part of the prevention strategy. "These {people} are a very vulnerable group," says Edward, "because they don't have time with their families and they also don't have access to medication because all the time they are in transit."

Maseruka Ayubu, a trucker for fifteen years, travels monthly from Mombasa to Katuna, carrying cement -- and also food aid to refugees in the Sudan. He said that the resource is important "because instead of having girls and having sex - we are putting our minds here...". Maseruka has also become a volunteer peer educator at the Center, teaching other truck drivers about the need to be informed about their sexual health, helping them organize, and letting them know the importance of their union. He says that instead of hanging around bars where you can be tempted by risky behavior, the resource center is a safe and fun place to be around others.

Other resource centers have also been opened in Kenya, Tanzania, Southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Burundi -- all in partnership with local unions. They are yet another critical tool in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the region -- providing community, information, basic health care, and the occasional soccer match enjoyed amongst friends.

For more information, check out Solidarity Center and FHI.

Follow Bernard and Danielle as they travel through Africa at