Africa first called to me about two years ago. It was during my training to be part of a group of students from my school that visits other schools and youth centers to teach about HIV/AIDS. Two members of the UCLA AIDS Ambassadors, our mentors, showed us a slideshow of a trip they took to Tanzania, a country in Africa. I watched as the photos of gaunt Africans, riddled with raw sores, clicked by. In their always-smiling faces I saw death. Those photos presented me with the face of AIDS, and for the first time I was confronted with a true image of the devastation that I knew so much about.
I felt a yearning to see firsthand the place where HIV/AIDS began. I had to go to Africa and serve in the battle against AIDS. Although my family is not actively Quaker, I think I feel the impulse to help others because I was raised to honor the Quaker initiative: to serve anyone in need of aid, to protest injustice and to respect the differences of others. I wanted to be with the sick and give them what I could: conversation, knowledge, food and comfort.
I got my chance last year when Robert Adanto, a teacher at my school and the director of the Crossroads Teen AIDS Ambassadors, asked me if I wanted to go on a service trip to Tanzania and Kenya. My father, who also decided to come, helped organize places for us to offer our assistance. A family friend who had worked for the State Department in Africa gave us the contacts we needed to meet with groups involved in fighting HIV.
Before we left in mid-December, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to help people, but anxious because I didn’t have the vaguest idea what to expect. Talking about HIV/AIDS means talking about sex. When I teach about the virus to teens in Los Angeles, the worst response I’ve ever gotten was a 10-year-old having a giggle fit when I said the word “semen.” I wasn’t sure how the Tanzanian and Kenyan people would respond.
We arrived in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, and I saw more during the 20-minute drive from the airport to the hotel than I had in my entire life. Our van bounced down the paved road and on either side I was confronted with chaos. Women bustled in bright dresses with banana clusters balancing on their heads, men wove dusty bicycles between crowds, shoeless children danced in the mud and pick-pocketed, and everywhere the walls were plastered with advertisements for cell phone services. The air hung heavily with flies. I was overwhelmed.
We made our way to Arusha, a town where I spent 10 days. There we met a Tanzanian man named Efram. He worked for Students for International Change, an AIDS relief organization. Efram was thin, around 30, with a shaggy head of thin dreadlocks. He took my father, Robert and me on home visits to people living with AIDS. I wanted to know what it was like to be an AIDS patient in rural Africa. I wanted to know who I was fighting for.
To reach the homes, we walked and took the public transportation, the nDale nDale, a decoratively painted Volkswagen bus with a man hanging out of it, calling in Swahili to see if anyone wants to buy a ride. After Efram signaled the driver that we had reached our stop, he paid in gold Tanzanian shillings. As we walked up the dirt road, Efram told us he had been visiting the diseased long before he was paid to do it. He said he finds people by listening to his heart: “My heart told me to turn left and so I turned left.” He often found people lying on their doorsteps, sometimes unable to walk because of their swollen feet. They didn’t understand why they were sick, so Efram explained that they were suffering from AIDS and their immune systems were so ravaged that their bodies were defenseless against common sicknesses. He helped them find the nearest clinic to get anti-retroviral drugs (or ARVs—the treatment, which is free in Tanzanian clinics for those who have full-blown AIDS, that lessens the impact of AIDS on the body). Before we arrived, Efram had visited some of the patients and asked if we could meet with them.
I was shocked by the harsh conditions I saw
The first person we met was a woman in her 30s who lived alone in a one-room cement hut furnished with a hard, little bed, a wooden bench, a stool and a pot. As we approached, it smelled indescribably putrid and I had to breathe through my mouth to keep from retching. She had shortly cropped hair, a few teeth, a swollen belly and tired eyes. She stood in her doorway wearing a ragged dress and shook our hands as she welcomed us into her home. Her name was Jasmine. My father, Robert, Efram and I sat on the bench, and she crouched on the stool by her pot. Efram translated from English to Swahili.
Efram asked us what questions we wanted to ask the Mama (a nickname used for most adult women). I asked if she knew what was ailing her and she paused for a moment and then replied that she had AIDS. Since she knew why we were there, I wasn’t nervous asking her personal questions. She told me her symptons: weakness, loss of appetite, and then she pointed to her feet. From mid-calf down her skin appeared to be a blackened scab. Efram explained that these were actually the recovery stages—a week ago she couldn’t stand. She was recovering from Kaposi’s sarcoma; a kind of cancer that often plagues AIDS victims. She had a ways to go before she could call herself healthy. To show this, Efram gently pressed his finger onto the skin of her ankle and the indent of his finger remained there, and continued to sink into the skin. I was shocked to learn that this woman had been in a worse state. I couldn’t imagine how she survived when she wasn’t able to walk.
My father asked her if the community knew that she had AIDS. She replied that she was one of few people who acknowledged she had AIDS and that she had nothing to hide. I asked if she had suffered for her openness. She paused and toyed with the thick white mass of ugali (a porridge made of flour and water) that filled her pot. Staring down into it she told us how her husband had thrown her out of their house when she had told him she was HIV positive. He had refused to speak to her and kept her from seeing her children. Whether or not he was HIV positive is unknown since he refused to get tested. Jasmine told us that she had been faithful to him, so it is probable that he had given her the virus. I felt honored that she trusted me with her story and I was overwhelmed with the desire to give her something. We had bought her flour, sugar and clean water, but for me, this didn’t feel like a gift. It was just a passing of goods from the privileged to the impoverished. I was sad that I couldn’t give her something more lasting.
We visited about six other homes; in one hut a woman told us that her husband refused to use a condom because he believed that the liquid in the package (the spermicide—the stuff that kills the semen) was actually the cause of the virus. We encountered other myths, including the popular concept that white men flew airplanes over Africa and sprinkled AIDS powder on people.
We noticed trends in the Tanzanians’ responses when we asked what was the biggest challenge dealing with HIV. They said that finding food to keep down medicines (which don’t work properly if taken on an empty stomach) and paying for transportation to the clinics was often impossible. None of them owned a car, many were too ill to walk to catch the nDale nDale, and almost none of them could afford to pay for it. This bothered me. Why were the medicines so far from the dying, while Coca-Cola was available even in the most remote village?
In the towns of Arusha, Moshi and Kibera, we held village square bazaars where local entertainment groups drew crowds while clinicians offered free HIV testing. The largest of these was in Kibera (a slum located in Nairobi, Kenya). Kibera is a small stretch of land, about one square mile, crammed with almost a million people.
With the help of local organizations that focus on fighting AIDS, we held a “Love Life: Stop AIDS” festival. We walked the main road of Kibera with a brass band playing Kenyan national songs, and Robert and I carried a banner and led the procession. The locals followed us until we reached where comedians were performing a skit that was apparently very amusing (knowing only about four Swahili phrases, I couldn’t keep up).
Between performances we taught facts about HIV/AIDS with the help of interpreters and local Swahili-speaking doctors, and encouraged people to get tested in the mobile clinic that was set up there. Some people got tested, others simply listened. When I did a condom demonstration in front of kids, some of the adults shifted uncomfortably. Children who had been climbing and sifting through a huge heap of garbage, wandered over and watched a puppet show in which the characters were having an open discussion about HIV/AIDS.
The Kibera bazaar was our last event in Africa. During our 17 days in Africa, we got about 100 people tested (around 35 percent turned out positive). I have been aware of similarly staggering statistics and little shocks me. I’m just glad I had the opportunity to help those 100 people stay alive. Of course, this is only the tiniest of drops in the bucket, but it remains one of my most fulfilling accomplishments because those people who now know their status can protect themselves and their partners.
We would always ask the people we met whether they had any message they wanted us to take back to the United States. Some asked for people to come and help them, others demanded that everyone learn as much about HIV/AIDS as possible, and others asked that they be remembered and that their existence be made known. I’ve realized that I can give these people something more meaningful, more permanent than a sack of grain. I can give them a voice. Now when I teach about HIV/AIDS back home in Los Angeles, I remind my peers of the people in Africa counting on them to protect themselves and to spread the knowledge.
My commitment to this cause is even stronger
This summer I went back to Africa. I spent five weeks in Johannesburg, South Africa volunteering at the Nkosi Johnson AIDS Foundation—a shelter for HIV-positive women and their children. I plan to return to South Africa this December. I’ve never felt more drawn to helping those who are suffering from HIV/AIDS. It is the crisis of our times—each day, 6,000 Africans die of AIDS, and yet it is preventable. At times it feels strange to be only 18 and so connected to one cause—especially since I didn’t know anything about HIV/AIDS three years ago. It’s also scary. I worry that I won’t be able to make a difference; this is an epidemic that has stumped scientists and frustrated activists for years. Still, it’s my calling (or one of my callings) and I plan to follow it.
My friends sometimes look at me like they feel sorry for me when I tell them I’m spending my vacations in Africa. Others look at me like I’m going way too far for community service credit. I’ve given up certain things, like spending time with my mom or taking more relaxing vacations. Yet this cause is never a burden.
I want to continue my education on HIV/AIDS and Africa (in college, I want to study Public Health and International Affairs), and I never forget to remind my peers about the virus and about my experiences. A day does not pass without my thoughts returning to Africa, and a part of me feels useless or out of place when I am home and not in the field fighting the virus. I know I’ll be going back even after this December. Africa is a place that I will be seeing a lot of throughout my lifetime.