Rio's carnival brings back joy after flood tragedy

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The Independent Online
It was an oddly sombre start to "the biggest party on Earth", Rio de Janeiro's annual carnival. A group of young samba dancers walked solemnly through the city's streets at the weekend, dressed in their carnival best but neither dancing, singing, nor even whispering. The insistent pounding of a big bass drum was the only sound.

The funereal march was to remember more than 80 Brazilians, mostly from around Rio, who died in floods and mudslides last week when more than 12 inches of rain fell in 48 hours. It was also to protest at what the marchers called government inaction during the disaster. "We had to pull out our dead with our own hands," said one marcher who lost two brothers in the slum area known as City of God.

The mourning over, however, the bands struck up, fireworks exploded, dancers gyrated and the 1996 carnival was under way. "Sure, it won't be the same, but we have to put the tragedy behind us," said one samba group leader, Helcio Correia da Silva. "The show must go on. I told our singers, dancers and drummers to dry their tears and get on with the business of spreading happiness."

One problem for the authorities was how to dissuade revellers from their traditional romps in the ocean off the renowned Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Last week's rains swept sewage and rubbish down from the precarious favelas (shanty towns) through the wealthy beachfront areas and into the sea. Environmental officials suggested staying out of the water until the carnival ends with the arrival of Lent at midnight tomorrow.

Revelling on the beach was a different matter. For the first time, condom vending machines were set up along the beachfront, advertising "self- service safe sex". The Health Ministry and Aids prevention groups also began distributing 11 million free condoms, and free T-shirts with slogans such as "Safe sex is fun for all", and "I don't do drugs but I use condoms". A Health Ministry spokesman described the campaign as "informative but less daring" than last year, when people in carnival costumes danced through the streetsdemonstrating how to slip condoms over bananas.

Brazil has one of the highest ratios of Aids cases to population in the world, with more than 76,000 known cases and an estimated 500,000 more of the 160 million population thought to be HIV-positive.

"It's a problem of poverty," said Jane Galvao of the non-governmental Brazilian Inter-Disciplinary Aids Association. "More and more children are engaged in prostitution. You can get food by using your body.

"Then there are the private blood banks which sell blood that hasn't been HIV-tested. Plus, there are a lot of men here who have sex with men but don't perceive themselves as gay," Ms Galvao said. "Often they're married. More and more housewives are getting the disease from their partners. And it's easier for us to get information to prostitutes than to housewives."

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