Gurue, Mozambique – A poster above the hotel reception desk introduces a friendly little guy named Jeito. He is trim, of medium height and sports a big smile. He's rather handsome, in a way, but is given to talk obsessively about sex – safe sex, that is. It's his forte, after all. He's a condom.
Take a stroll from my gritty hotel, the Pensao Gurue, through this isolated town in Mozambique's central highlands, and you'll find evidence of Jeito's popularity. After prompting, a cluster of teenage boys hovering near the market engage in a very grown-up conversation about the Jeito. Condoms, one of them almost lectures, are not only a good idea, they will save your life. His friends nod in agreement, and to prove this is not mere bravado, they fish ample supplies from their wallets, all stamped Jeito.
Not everyone urges me to take one, as these guys do, but nearly every man I talk to – drivers, market venders, fellow journalists, waiters – agreed the Jeito ought to be employed whenever necessary.
It's a remarkable difference from a decade ago. Africa is awash in taboos and rural traditions resistant to change. When I lived in Mozambique in the mid-1990s, I often heard people insisting that condoms were not necessary. The cure to HIV, they said, could be found in a certain root the village elders were familiar with.
This one corner of rural Africa, at least, has come a long way in the fight against HIV.
It's a small victory considering the size of the problem in sub-Saharan Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) says at least 30 million Africans are infected with HIV. Continent-wide, some 9 percent of the population carries the virus that causes AIDS.
Numbers like that can throw into question the economic and cultural survival of the continent. In the great cities of Johannesburg, Nairobi and Kinshasa, the dying clog the hospitals and clinics.
In isolated places such as Gurue, a dusty collection of crumbling buildings built during Portuguese colonial times, the market is slack, the two cafes are mostly empty and the streets do not bustle. The health care system here is non-existent. The WHO says that in Africa, nearly 99 percent of people needing life-saving treatment for AIDS lack access to antiretroviral therapy.
Nearly 13 percent of 15- to 49-year-olds in this province, Zambezia, are HIV-positive, according to UNICEF.
But there encouraging signs. Thanks in large part to Jeito and a public information campaign. The condom project is compliments of a group called Population Services International (PSI), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit with funding from UNICEF, the British government and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The key to Jeito and to condom programs everywhere, health educators say, is about much more than raising money and passing out condoms. It is about marketing. And the key to marketing is understanding the culture.
If you hear someone say, "you can't give condoms away in Africa," they're probably right. If it is free, it must be no good, can be the thinking here. Jeito sells for an affordable few cents. And just as Coke marketers throw up ads, write slogans and create catchy jingles, so do the marketers of Jeito.
In fact, "jeito" in Portuguese, the official language of this multilingual nation, means "to have that certain knack." So when the ditty on the radio urges you to "do it with Jeito," it's more likely to stick in the mind.
Is it working? According to estimates by PSI, along with a study compiled by the U.K.-based York Health Economics Consortium, the Jeito and the group's public education efforts averted 24,000 HIV infections in Mozambique in 2003 alone.
Teenagers packing condoms, taxi drivers speaking openly about using them, thousands of potential HIV infections averted – small victories on a weary continent. But they are victories that suggest this part of rural Africa has come a good bit further than a large chunk of America. Mozambique, an impoverished and to a large degree illiterate country, embraces condoms. In the wealthy, educated, sophisticated United States, the Bush administration would rather stress abstinence, water down the fact that condoms are effective in preventing HIV and pull condom information pages from government web sites than risk a sex-educated populace. In advanced America – where the HIV infection rate has not budged, according to the government – you are likely to come across claims by administration supporters that condoms flat out don't prevent disease.
Luckily, the peddlers of this dangerous message haven't come up with a catchy jingle. Yet.