aids ribbon

AIDS is basically a forgotten disease in the western world. For the most part, people who have it contracted it on their own (overwhelmingly from intravenous drug use and sometimes from risky sexual behavior) and then they basically live with a chronic disease and medication. In much of the developing world, AIDS is impossible to forget.

I lived in western Kenya at a time when the adult HIV positive infection rate was said to be upward of 30%. There were funerals every week. I went on a month-long vacation and came home to find two of my friends had died from AIDS.

One of them was the only Kenyan I had ever met who was open about having the disease. He found out his HIV status after checking into a hospital for TB treatment. That is how most people find out. He was very brave for being open about his status — many people never admit to it and engage in behavior which spreads the disease for fear of being found out. This young man threw off the taboos of his community to not marry and actively educate people about HIV/AIDS.

My other friend had contracted the disease from her husband. In a polygamous society, it is impossible to say whether the husband had been unfaithful, or simply had a new family. When she was too ill to conceive, she was abandoned by him and taken in to her sister’s household. She was lucky to have a sister like that.

Like most Peace Corps volunteers, I participated in AIDS education; I did a lot with my students (I taught at a high school), but other community groups would invite me to their meetings. It wasn’t that I knew more than Kenyans knew (the education branch of AIDS education was quite successful), but I had more resources and fewer cultural hang ups about discussing sex, so I was happy to do it. I did find it ironic that the inexperienced Mormon girl was the one out there talking about sex, but the Church does not exist in that part of the world, so everyone assumed, I am sure, I was another highly experienced American.

My hardest audience was at a Catholic mission: a group of nuns. I taught the ABCs: its is best to be Abstinent, next best is to Be monogamous, and if that is not possible Correct Condom use is the safest choice. These nuns were looking for information to teach their students and they were very resistant to anything beyond abstinence education.

Without fail, in every single presentation, someone would raise their hand and ask: “But didn’t AIDS come from America? Wasn’t it made in your labs to kill black people?” I always told them that when I was first taught about AIDS in school in the 1980s, we were told it came from Africa — I hoped the fact that we blamed each other would make people laugh. Then I used the analogy of a snake in your house. What do you do first: ask it where it came from or kill it? Of course you kill it first, and our desire as educators was to change people’s behavior so the snake was no longer a concern in their house.

Unfortunately, if you get HIV from someone in your house, your spouse or your parents, there is very little to be done.

Although HIV tests were available and free, very few Kenyans were interested in discovering their status. They felt that, since they had no access to treatments, there was no need to inquire. Of course, that is a very selfish choice, but it was hard to convince anyone of that. Without medication, it was a death sentence. Guess what we were trained to tell people who had this disease that was sure to cause their death? Eat better. That’s right: our only band-aid was to tell people to eat how their grandparents had eaten and forgo the fatty foods that invaded their community, like french fries. Cold comfort that was.

I left that world five years ago, and I hope things have changed. I hope that when I visit next I will not hear funeral drums every night. I hope I will see evidence of a society protecting itself. I hope to see fewer AIDS billboards and more clinics that can administer drugs to the HIV positive. I hope that children there will find death as rare and mysterious as children here do.