Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Picture of Life with HIV in Africa

Africa. The seed of the world. One of the most beautiful and most scintillating places on earth. From the deserts of the Sahara and the rainforests of the Congo to the bright and bustling metropolis of Cape Town, life is rich everywhere. Yet amidst all this beauty and splendor, a deadly scourge threatens the people of this continent. AIDS.

Sub-Saharan Africa is more heavily affected by HIV/AIDS than is any other region in the world. Somewhere around 22.4 million people in the region are currently living with HIV. This makes up a whopping two-thirds of the global number of HIV-infected individuals. Whereas in other areas of the world the disease affects only certain groups, here, HIV/AIDS affects everyone. This affliction picks apart whole extended families one by one. Schools are gradually emptied over time as students are orphaned. Healthcare and economic development have all taken a hard hit because of the impact of HIV/AIDS on the African peoples. Organizations simply don’t have the funds to support or expand prevention, treatment and care efforts and for this reason, it is likely that the death count will continue to rise. Life expectancy has been drastically reduced across the continent, falling to as low as 31 years in some of the worst afflicted areas. HIV/AIDS is present everywhere we look. It is an unavoidable aspect of everyday life.

The following dialogue includes excerpts from various interviews. I spoke with a group of college students who lived for six months in South Africa and Zambia, another student who lived 2 years in Nigeria, and a field biologist currently doing research in Cameroon. Their testimonies will enhance the picture of daily life in African countries afflicted with HIV/AIDS.

Take the country of Cameroon, for example. As of 2008, the population in Cameroon neared 19 million. Of that, about 600,000 are living with HIV/AIDS. More than half of that is made up of women 15 years and older. While prevalence here is much lower than other countries, HIV/AIDS remains a chief concern. When asked about general knowledge about the disease, most agreed that the “information is very available to middle and upper class citizens, but not necessarily to the lower class citizens and those that are at highest risk.” There is a large focus on prevention here, and the country is littered with billboards promoting abstinence, safer sex practices and condom use.

Public Service Announcement in Cameroon
“Sex can wait…my future comes first.”

South Africa is a key example of a country, of a government that has failed its people. Until very recently, the government took no part in the fight against AIDS. Thabo Mbeki, president from 1999 to 2008 refused to believe that HIV causes AIDS and that condoms can prevent infection. This leadership has fueled outlandish beliefs such as that condoms cause AIDS, or that white people are pushing condoms laced with AIDS to wipe out Africans. When asked about the role of the government in the fight against AIDS, one student said, “The president is not very influential considering he stated that he took a shower after having had sex with someone infected with AIDS, and therefore he would not contract the disease.” Here, she is referring to the current president, Jacob Zuma, who publicly stated that showering after sex with an HIV-positive woman would reduce his risk of being infected. A fellow student added, “NGOs are much more active. They have done a much better job fighting AIDS through their provision of important information and items such as condoms and antiretrovirals.”

Incumbent President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma

The picture of life here has changed drastically since AIDS exploded on the scene. While treatment and prevention are improving in some areas, the governments of more conservative countries, such as South Africa, need to step up and face this issue with full force so that HIV/AIDS is no longer a shadow looming over the lives of everyone.

Facts and figures were obtained from AVERT International HIV and AIDS charity, the Global Health Council, USAID, and Elizabeth Pisani’s The Wisdom of Whores.

I would like to recognize Albert Noah-Messomo, an African native of the Beti people in the rainforest of Cameroon. His traditional African-style music was featured during this Podcast. I would like to thank Kurt Kristensen, Sara Levintow, Nikki Pagano, and Rebecca McQuade for their contributions to this Podcast.

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