Tag Archives: HIV/AIDS

“With Nelson Mandela behind us…who could be against us?”

13 Dec

The world has been buzzing with the news of the passing of Nelson Mandela last Thursday, with an incessant stream of stories on his life, his legacy, and his impact on crucial issues of civil, political and human rights. He was a champion of the equal provision of rights for all people regardless of race, class, and religion, but following his presidency, he also took on a role as a champion of the rights of people affected by HIV/AIDS. This week marked the 17th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) in Africa, which was appropriately held in Cape Town, South Africa. Conference participants reflected on the impact that Mandela made on the fight against HIV/AIDS, talking more openly about the epidemic at a time when it was still shrouded in silence.

Perhaps even more striking was the impact that Mandela made on the fight against stigma towards HIV/AIDS. From sporting a t-shirt reading “HIV Positive” upon meeting activists with the Treatment Action Campaign and Médecins Sans Frontières in Khayelitsha, South Africa in 2002, to inviting celebrated HIV-activists like Annie Lennox (I love her way too much) to the launch of his 46664 HIV-awareness campaign in 2003, to his acknowledgement in 2005 that he had in fact lost his own son to an AIDS related illness, Nelson Mandela ushered turning point after turning point in the global fight against HIV/AIDS and the stigma that stymies the efforts of AIDS activists everywhere. He was quoted as saying, “let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness, like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and to say somebody has died because of HIV.”

Anyone working in the global effort to curb the spread of HIV and educate populations on its causes and reach can tell you that stigma is often the most difficult barrier to break down in providing effective outreach. This phenomenon is by no means specific to African countries – it exists all over the world – but 97% of those living with HIV reside in low to middle income countries, and adequately providing sufficient resources to curb the spread of HIV in these countries is a colossal task. I remember first arriving in Tanzania some years back, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to join the fight by teaching HIV-prevention education in rural primary schools and local community centres. I was shocked to see and hear first-hand some of the misconceptions and myths about HIV and the general resistance to even acknowledging this devastating epidemic.

There are currently 33.4 million people worldwide living with HIV (and that only accounts for those who have been tested…to say that the actual number of cases is significantly higher is a gross understatement) and over 25 million have already died from AIDS-related illnesses*. Though many still believe that HIV is a myth, or that it is a virus spread from the West to perpetuate some form of neo-imperialistic population control in the developing world. Many cultures believe themselves to be immune. Many believe HIV is spread through lies and rumors, through witches and sin, through curses and (ironically) condoms. There are millions of people in this world who do not want to get tested because they would rather not know their status. This is not only because of the devastating affect of HIV on a person’s health, but also because many communities still stigmatize and reject individuals based on their HIV status.

Educating the world about HIV/AIDS is essential to stopping it. So much emphasis is placed on radical new ARV treatment therapies that we forget that HIV is a 100% preventable virus – spread through sex, blood, and birth from an HIV+ mother. Educating oneself and one’s community about the facts of the epidemic can help to prevent the stigma and breed generations of people working together, regardless of status, to put an end to the spread of HIV.

Nelson Mandela recognized this. Just as he knew that no peoples of this world should be discriminated against based upon the color of their skin, Mandela knew that those living with HIV need the support, acceptance and love of their neighbors – and their country – in order to receive proper care and prevent the virus from spreading further. Though as the conference in Cape Town discussed, “vulnerable groups such as men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, and prisoners are still being criminalized and marginalized in most countries, and are often unable to access basic HIV services.”

Madiba has left the world with an immense legacy of compassion, vision and the relentless pursuit of equality for all human beings. Let us honor that legacy by educating ourselves about HIV/AIDS in our countries and around the world, and recognize that stigmatizing an individual based on their HIV status is no different than discriminating against them based on the color of their skin.

*Quick Fact: Few people seem to understand that HIV is a virus that depletes the immune system over a number of years, most of which are marked by no symptoms, which is why getting tested is the ONLY way to know one’s status. AIDS, on the other hand, is a stage of HIV that comes about once a person’s T-Cell count (the ones that keep us immune to illness and disease) drops so low that our bodies are unable to fight off infection. To say someone has died of AIDS is to say that that person died as a result of opportunistic infections that took advantage of a body with no immune system to protect itself. Next time you hear somebody say “You’re going to get AIDS” or “I don’t want to get AIDS by engaging in Behavior X, Y, or Z,” let them know that this erroneous understanding of a complex virus is detrimental to the fight to end it. Educate yourself. Find out more.

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If I was an educator…but then again, no.

22 Sep

Social definitions have never suited me well. I can’t make sense of them. I trust that my transition from academia back to the professional world will be wrought with similar discontent as I come to terms with the fact that while I am passionate about education, while I feel in my bones that education is the reason I gravitate towards the decisions that I have made, while my soul screams that the quest for truth is meaningless without a shared space where we can compare and contrast our truths and in the end hopefully arise from the pits of confusion with some unifying ideal towards which we can strive, while I accept as fact that schools provide not only knowledge for children, but hope for a future, while the sound of rickety wooden desks and bare feet scraping across crumbling cement and dirt floors never fails to remind me of who I am as a human being…I can’t say that I am an educator.

I have tried my hand at teaching. Mostly public health, of which I knew extremely little prior to extensive training in HIV/AIDS prevention education. No, I went to college to make movies and television. I wanted to live with a script in my back pocket. I wanted to craft film trailers. I wanted to scout shooting locations. I wanted to start in the mail room and work my way up to head of production on…well, I’ve forgotten to be honest. In my senior year at UCLA I grew jaded with Mass Communication Studies and tried my hand at UCLA’s global studies program, which led me to a course on African Ecology and Development. Not sure how it awakened what it did, but the fascination stuck, and I shipped off to Tanzania upon graduating. I was teaching HIV education for primary schools and local factory workers, English tutoring after school, ad hoc education and food programs for children living on the streets of Arusha. I lived by sunlight during the week, some battery powered lamps from time to time. Slept in a hut built of mud and sticks. Trapped when it rained, unstoppable when the sun was shining. I returned some months later to what came to be a life that now seemed strangely alien to me. Couldn’t quite make it work, so I sought to return to a life that made more sense.

I was soon in Uganda, teaching HIV Sensitization, distributing condoms, networking with local officials, acquiring donations, helping to quench fires as they arose. Me learning from them, them learning from me. I wanted to contribute more. Luckily, I had just applied for a graduate program in International Education. I wrote my statement of purpose on a boy named Anaeli with whom I worked on the streets of Arusha. Such a smartass, such a clown. And he didn’t want money. He didn’t want a handout (though he enjoyed the food we brought too). He wanted to go to school. I had never seen this in the US…13 year old boys asking if someone could help them just so they could go to school. I understood…while most around me growing up always hated that they had to spend their time in such a structured institution, I reveled in the opportunity to challenge myself and acquire as much knowledge as I could fit into my brain. I would have asked for some help too. So I wanted to go back to school to learn how I could help kids stop having to plead for a chance to get an education. Guided by the admittedly trite mantra to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” I dreamed of helping to create a world where education was an equal opportunity for all children. I got in, and here I am.

But an educator? Hardly. I have decided to leave the act of educating to more qualified people. I take my interest in finding solutions to problems in educating kids like Anaeli, and soon plunged into a world of educating children in the worst situations on earth. The field of education in emergencies and the role of education as a means for mitigating conflict in the region of the world where I felt so at home is relentlessly fascinating to me, and it calls to me. From my coursework on education in conflict, to work with William Easterly’s Development Research Institute, UNICEF’s Child Protection Section, and the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, my life has been consumed by it. And there is no end in sight.

Previous research interests have included education for demobilized child soldiers, particularly in northern Uganda, community-based schools in Central Africa, and teacher training for South Sudan as a tool of nation-building for our world’s newest nation. These days: resistance to refugee repatriation in sub-Saharan Africa, and the corresponding brain drain on home economies when educational opportunities for refugees surpass those in their countries of origin. Will be keeping an eye on humanitarian concerns in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in East & Central Africa and the Horn, the growing LGBT rights movement in East Africa, child soldier recruitment, and education in emergencies topics as they arise.

I ache to return. In my final semester in the M.A. program, I will once again have to confront social definitions as I define who it is and what I am to become. I have learned a lot, but I do not have the answers. I have no delusions of traveling to the most remote regions of Central and East Africa and understanding the context at hand well enough to make the right choices. I am not an educator, I am a student. I recognize that my education will never stop. I wish to move through life collecting teachers wherever I can find them, and use what they teach me to help them lift themselves from turmoil. Wrought with wanderlust and committed to whatever change I can be a part of, I am eager to see where life takes me next.

Stirrin’ up trouble in Kisongo Village