Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

28 Stories of AIDS


I’ve just finished reading Canadian journalist Stephanie Nolen’s exceptional book 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa – she tells one personal story for every million of the 28 million people living with AIDS in Africa. Author Adam Hochschild says in his blurb on the back that Nolen is putting “a series of human faces on the greatest health crisis of our time”, and that’s what the book has done for me. Made AIDS more human.

It has also taught me some facts about AIDS that I found interesting:

  • The stereotype that Africans have more sexual partners than Europeans and Americans is not true. However, what makes them more susceptible to AIDS is that they have their sexual partners concurrently, while Westerners tend to be serial in their sexual relationships.
  • The AIDS virus mutates, so if people stop taking their meds and then start again, it’s possible that they will no longer be resistant to the virus. Those who are lucky enough to have antiretrovirals (ARVs) have to take them every day at exactly the same time.
  • Ground-breaking microbicide research is taking place in my home province, KwaZulu-Natal. A microbicide is similar to a spermicide that women can use with or without their partners’ knowledge, thus giving them the power to protect themselves against AIDS. Microbicide research has taken years to get off the ground because pharmaceutical companies don’t believe it is profitable enough to be worth pursuing. Expensive ARVs – for treating people who already have AIDS – are. Makes you sick.
  • Nolen could just as easily have called her book 26 or 30, because data collection in sub-Saharan Africa is notoriously weak. Her feeling is that the statistic of 28 million is conservative. Numbers aside, it’s still an epic crisis.

Here’s what she says about why the response to AIDS has been so muted:

Few people outside Africa seem to understand the scale or the epic gravity of what is happening here. When I talk to people at home about the pandemic, I get the sense that they feel a dying African is somehow different from a dying Canadian, American or German – that Africans have lower expectations or place less value on their lives. That to be an orphaned fifteen-year-old thrust into caring for four bewildered siblings, or a teacher thrown out of her house after she tells her husband she is infected – that somehow this would be less terrifying or strange for a person in Zambia or Mozambique than it would be for someone in the United States or Britain.

And so I wanted to tell their stories – to tell how they want to do to high school, or build up a small taxi business, or meet their grand-children. When people in Tanzania or Botswana find themselves fighting governments – their own and and those in the West – and multinational pharmaceutical companies and their own families and the neighbours who isolate and fear them, that is every bit as bizarre and daunting for them as it would be for you and me. I have met the beauty queens and the soldiers and the young lovers and the scientists who live with AIDS in Africa, and I know that the only way that they are different from me is that they have the misfortune to live in countries that are economically and politically marginal – that they are black and they are, quite often, poor, and so their lives can slip away unremarked.

Westerners do feel helpless and get compassion fatigue, but there are things to do, says Nolen. On her website, she details organizations that gratefully receive money and channel it correctly to the most needy. We can also talk about AIDS and keep the conversation going – prod our governments about their response to the crisis. On her site, Nolen says these are the questions we can ask:

Write or call your government representative to talk about funding levels for the fight against AIDS – how much has your country given the Global Fund? How much did it promise – did it deliver? What percentage of GDP does your country give to foreign aid – are you reaching the target of 0.7 per cent? Does your country have outstanding debts from African countries, who are paying off those loans instead of hiring nurses? Does your government subsidize farmers – such as cotton or rice growers – who then dump their subsidized products in Africa, making it impossible for local farmers to earn a living? Does your government allow African countries to export consumers goods to your country without prohibitive tariffs? These are the questions to ask, and the kinds of policy changes that will make a difference in Africa.

Tomorrow, I plan to talk more about AIDS and introduce you to someone from my home town who has AIDS. I want to keep this conversation going.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

14 thoughts on “28 Stories of AIDS

  1. as someone who’s life has been touched by hiv, i want to thank you for writing about it. it’s become the forgotten epidemic only because westerners with good healthcare stopped dying – i think that’s criminal.

  2. AIDS is a daily fact of life here. Our domestic worker, who has three children, discovered she’d been infected by her husband, who’d been sleeping around. She was pregnant with her last child at the time and had all the fears of him being born with HIV. ARVs weren’t yet available except at huge cost, but my sister-in-law discovered an alternative, immune-supporting program of nutritional supplements, (including african potato) which got her through until the ARVs became available for free here. Now she has to stay on them for life, but we hope she’ll be able to see her children grow up safely now.

  3. I love the questions listed. So often you just feel helpless and shrug because you have no idea where to start.

    Sergio and I often talk about Africa. Such a beautiful continent and yet it seems so many corporations just go in rape it of it’s resources and then leave the communities to deal with the aftermath. Truly tragic.

  4. This is a great summary of a very important book. There is so much more to say about what is happening in Africa, and as it was already pointed out, the epidemic there is so different than it is here.

    Although we have stigma around HIV here in the U.S, even after more than 25 years of the epidemic, the stigma there causes much more worry for women. When a woman finds out she has HIV, through a required test done by her doctor, her husband or boyfriend denies any responsibility on the and usually does not get himself tested. Men are not required to get tested in most countries, just women. So, a lot of the blame of HIV is placed on the women.

    It is important to continue to talk about HIV, to continue to reduce its stigma, to raise money for spermicide research, and to always love and support those who are infected.

  5. I just discovered your blog through Alida (who commented above), and am so thankful I found this post of yours. My husband and I often talk about the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, especially because he teaches both Health and World Cultures.

    I am definitely checking this book out!

  6. As so often is with your posts, this one poses difficult questions to each of us, while giving a direction (reading Nolen’s book) and momentum to being aware and alert about why life is so very precious. Thanks.

    Can I, yet again, put this post in the RTB?

  7. This really struck me: “When I talk to people at home about the pandemic, I get the sense that they feel a dying African is somehow different from a dying Canadian, American or German – that Africans have lower expectations or place less value on their lives.”

    I wonder if this is evidence of “catastrophe fatigue,” in that here in the US we get this constant low level of information about epidemics, droughts, etc. in Third World countries from the media, so that it seems like these events are just normal everyday things in Africa. As if there’s always a famine in Ethiopia, terrorist bombings in Egypt, AIDS in South Africa, and so on.

    Or it could be that if Americans can decide that AIDS is just “normal” for Africans, then they don’t have to do much about it.

  8. Thanks for this thought provoking post. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic there, and it truly is a scourge everywhere it strikes. I can only imagine how it would affect someone in a third world country.

    I find it interesting that both of us felt compelled to do book reviews of thought provoking books on problems in third world countries on the same day.

  9. Well, I got some book tokens for my birthday. This gives me something worthwhile to spend them on. Apart from that, all I can say as of now is that I’m paying attention.

  10. I have not heard of this book, but now I will seek it out. The view of AIDS from here in the UK is very vague – they know it’s going on but they don’t for a second think that people are thrown out of their houses or ostracised by their families when they are diagnosed. The other scary thing is that although in Africa, AIDS is always on the forefront of the news, campaigns etc etc, here in the UK it’s kind of like “oh AIDS – didn’t that epidemic finish in the 1990s?” There seems to be a general perception that a) people aren’t contracting HIV any more and that b) if they do, it’s certainly isn’t fatal – more like an annoying food allergy. Oh yes, and you need to be a gay drug addict to catch it. This has made people terrifyingly complacent. They simply do not realise that they are sitting on a time bomb!

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  13. “pharmaceutical companies don’t believe it is profitable enough to be worth pursuing. Expensive ARVs – for treating people who already have AIDS – are. Makes you sick. ”
    It makes you sick that pharmaceutical have to pay their skilled workers?
    Most the scientists in pharmaceutical companies have degrees which take at least 8 years to earn?
    Not to mention the 2billion the government charges a company to test a drug, even after it has been tested?
    I dont see coka cola or chevy paying for free drinks or cars for people around the world, so why get all hypocritical over pharmaceutical companies.
    If wanna blame someone for the lack of help overseas, blame Americas government and the ignorance of its citzens.

  14. Pingback: >$1/Day, Child-headed Households, 28 Million, A Continent Dying….Don’t Look Away: Part I | Four Deer Oak

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