One really important aspect of this study abroad experience for me was to interact and talk to locals as often as possible about HIV, and how AIDS has impacted their lives. Over the last week, I’ve heard three very personal stories.
During an hour-long taxi to the Botswana/Zambia border, the subject came up unexpectedly when speaking with my driver Jubo. I asked him about his wife and kids, which he proudly presented pictures of. He and his wife had been married 13 years (tough years, he said) and had two beautiful kids, a son that was 8 and a daughter that was 3. I noticed that there were three kids in the family portrait.
“Who is this?” I asked of the older yet unidentified kid. He told me that is his kid too, but not by birth. Jubo explained that the kid’s parents had died of AIDS when the kid was only 3 years old and has been raising him as his own for the last 10 years. “He wants to be a pilot, I’m very proud of him.” He continued, “My youngest son wants to be a mathematics teacher and my daughter, I can tell she is the smartest… she wants to be a doctor.”
Unprompted and unplanned, the personal stories continued throughout the week. I met a man named Paul on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, near Victoria Falls. Paul walked with me for a few minutes, as often people do when they are working you up to buy something. But Paul was different. He told me that he lives in a village in Zimbabwe about 15 kilometers from where we were. But due to the economic collapse of his country (and the strong-arm rule of Mugabe), he has been unable to find work as a carpenter. He explained to me that his daughter had died of HIV a few years ago, leaving him to raise her child alone (as Paul’s wife had already passed away). To make ends meet while he has to spend time caring for his granddaughter, Paul has been carving animals out of teak and ebony wood, like his grandfather showed him when he was a kid many years ago. It takes him a week, maybe 2 to carve his giraffes, hippos and rhinos. Then every three weeks or so he walks to the tourist town of Livingstone, on the border and tries to sell the animals to people like me. And, despite not having the need or room for a wooden rhino, I bought one from him for $5USD. He says that will feed his family for a week.
Finally, as I am writing this, I’m on a train to Dar es Salaam, sharing a cabin with a Zambian man named Mr. Christopher. As we had the pleasure of spending all 48 hours together in the cabin (it’s a LONG train ride), we had ample opportunity to talk. He is the headmaster of a school and several times he has ended up raising children who were not born to him, as their parents had died of AIDS as well. He has even paid to put some through college, something he points out with great pride.
Mr. Christopher then rummaged through his bag and pulled out a tattered manila envelope. He slides it over to me and says “this is my dream.” I open the envelope and see his plans for a radio station geared towards the younger generation. “Kulaweni” he tells me is the name. It is Chewa for “renew your mind.”
“We need to change how we approach HIV with the younger people of Zambia. I want to make a radio station that will talk about the stuff people don’t hear anywhere else. Zambia will not end HIV until we change our way of thinking… until we renew our minds.”
Over the next day, we discussed many topics regarding HIV prevention and treatment. He was particularly interested in the 4 key populations most at risk. Sex workers, men that have sex with men, drug users and transgender are at 15 to 45 times higher risk than the normal population. Mr. Christopher agreed, “It is not a popular topic to discuss but we must reach out to those groups. I want to know more about this.” Luckily, I told him, I had just come from the International AIDS Conference and had a stack of research with me, which I gladly gave him. For the next several hours he was silent, reading every page.
“What is a ‘transgender’?” he asked, and I did my best to explain in a way I hoped he would understand.
“Oh yes, I’ve had several transgender students before. I always feel sorry for them because often the other students make fun of them. The stigma they face must be difficult.” Shocked cannot begin to describe my reaction because he has hit the nail right on the head. Many of the workshops I attended at the AIDS Conference were exactly on this subject of stigma.
He told me about one student he had a few years ago who was transgender. Boys would not associate with him and neither would the girls. “He must have felt very isolated and alone, but he was very smart.” He said that the isolation must have been too much to bear because last year he was found dead in field, apparently of suicide. “Very sad, and very unfortunate. As a society, we need kulaweni, we need to change our thinking of this.”
On that, I definitely agree with Mr. Christopher. Best of luck to him as he works to build a radio station in central Zambia that will hopefully be able to renew the minds and change the thinking around the populations most at risk for HIV.