Missed or Mixed Messages – Way Out?

In December 2000, I was part of the crowd that gathered at the Harare International Conference Centre (HICC) for the launch of activities marking that year’s World AIDS Day. The HICC has hosted a number of notable international meetings. These include the 1986 Non-Aligned Movement Summit; the 1991 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and the 1996 World Solar Commission Process Summit (I often wonder loudly where this most useful intervention in energy matters ended up at). Other imposing and similarly internationally-recognized meetings, conferences and workshops have been convened at the same place. For the so-called incurable music lovers, the HICC holds memories of some unforgettable musical concerts ever staged in Zimbabwe.

The year 2000 World AIDS Day commemorations were due for launch by the country’s First Lady. She was introduced by the Minister of Health and Child Welfare, who opened his remarks by telling the gathering that “I am here to tell you that I am HIV-negative. However, that is not because I am clever, or always made the correct choices. Rather, I wish to thank God for saving me.”

The Minister did not go far. The next occurrence was surreal (yes, in the way the word is described as the Oxford Dictionaries 2016 word of the year). Hundreds of men in the main auditorium and on the balconies spontaneously stood up. They clapped long and hard. As one took a panoramic view of the men, one thing was certain; they had appropriated the Minister’s remarks unto themselves. One could see vicarious agreement with the Minister. In those brief words and a “confession,” he had touched many hearts. Although he proceeded with the rest of his remarks, that moment of spontaneity and vulnerability hit a high note that is not easy to forget. It also underlined the fears that AIDS inflicted on society, especially, at a time when the basket of life-saving drugs was still unknown in some parts of the world.

I had my first challenge with the pandemic as a journalist in 1991. While reporting from one of Zimbabwe’s premier tourist destinations, Kariba, I was approached by a young man who said he knew of an elderly man who had developed full-blown AIDS. From what was known, he did not have long to live. Thus, he had decided to share his story with the rest of the country. I was unsure about how to respond. For a short while, I even called on my muses to give me the appropriate questions to raise. If this interview took place, it would be the first time that a person living with AIDS was interviewed by any of the country’s media. My undeniable advantage was that because this would be a television interview, we would be accessing material that was still lacking in the AIDS awareness programmes.

Well, I must use surreal again! It is the only word which best describes the moments that followed confirmation that the patient was, indeed, willing to speak on camera. Accompanied by the young man who first made contact with me, we found our way to Kariba Heights and finally to the patient’s residence. My crew and I were greeted by a forlorn and gloomy atmosphere. Most household items had been sold to raise money for the expensive medication which a few people could access. Cameraman Johnnie  Savanhu and my driver Regis Matope helped each other to set up for the interview. Meantime, I was introduced to the patient and I shook his hand. 

I did not think about this. Further, I would still be correct if I said that I did not even notice the gesture. “Trouble” came when the interview was done. He extended his hand to both Johnnie and Regis to thank the crew for visiting and talking to him. As soon as we got in the car, Regis said “we touched his hand!” 

While that left us with many questions, it took our appreciation of HIV / AIDS many steps forward. For example, in July 1992, we were back in Kariba to cover a project cleverly called “KARIBA POP MUSIC.” This was an intervention by the University of Zimbabwe’s Lake Kariba Research Station to support and generate greater community-based AIDS awareness programmes. The campaign focused on the many drinking places and fishing camps in the resort. As it grew, KARIBA POP MUSIC held up to fifteen meetings every month with its target groups, spreading the dual message of “abstinence or be safe.”

The programme was sponsored by AIDS Tech Family Health International. Its major hope was to discourage prostitution and offer other income-generating schemes like poultry, embroidery (a good choice given the tourists who are always in the town) and a printing club. To further underline the seriousness of the project, it was placed under the management of the University of Zimbabwe’s Department of Psychology.

It is almost thirty years since World AIDS Day was first marked in 1988. Without doubt, stigma and discrimination remain active challenges in the fight against the pandemic. It is quite important to note that the Day reminds Governments  and the public that “AIDS has not gone away and there is need for increased awareness.”

A recent online news report carried the story of a former footballer in South Africa who has decided to tell the country and the world that his retirement in 2013 was because he had tested HIV-positive. Speaking to youngsters at one of his public meetings, he recalls “seeing the youngsters drawing their chairs away from him.” However, his  bigger “handicap” is that he did not play for one of the bigger clubs in the country. A quick read through the comments section shows many respondents asking “who is this guy, no news here,”  while another sarcastic retort is that “maybe he played for Banyana Banyana (South African women football squad).”

Thankfully, one commentator correctly  calibrates the  argument. After praising the former player for his courage, he argues that “testing should be mandatory for all men. Because men generally are cowardly when it comes to HIV testing. Women will go for testing with any slight illness. Besides that, in pregnancy, they undergo mandatory testing. It’s people like you (those who poke fun at the former footballer) who refuse to get tested and infect our school girls by promising them money.”

*** It is necessary to note that this is a fringe news site. However, I still think it is worthwhile to sample its views. This is particularly so when I look at some of the comments made in the UNAIDS 2016 Report entitled GET ON THE FAST-TRACK : THE LIFE-CYCLE TO HIV.

While most of the Report makes encouraging reading, it is noteworthy to keep in mind the UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibe’s observations:

While making progress against the epidemic, we are not seeing progress everywhere. The number of new HIV infections is not declining among adults, with young women particularly at risk of becoming infected with HIV. We know that for girls in sub-Saharan Africa, the transition to adulthood is a particularly dangerous time. Young women face a triple threat: a high risk of HIV infection, low rates of HIV testing and poor adherence to HIV treatment. Co-infections of people living with HIV …..are at risk of putting the 2020 target of fewer than 500000 AIDS-related deaths out of reach.

I will draw this to a close with remarks attributed to Ban Ki-moon, the former United Nations Secretary-General, who said;

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted with a promise to leave no one behind.  Nowhere is this more important than in tackling AIDS. Supporting young vulnerable and marginalized people will change the course of the epidemic.

We have come a long way in the fight against AIDS. The world has celebrated a number of positive outcomes in the campaign. There is need to ensure a strong, consistent and adaptable message remains ready for deployment into those areas which still present setbacks in an otherwise praiseworthy effort.