Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How to Help on World AIDS Day

Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day.

2010 has marked significant progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS. According to UNAIDS, the number of new infections of HIV has fallen by 19% since 1999, the year generally considered to be the apex of the epidemic. Access to antiretroviral therapy has increased--from 28% to 36% (that's under the new WHO Guidelines, for you public health nerds out there) from 2008 to 2009. The percentage of pregnant women living with HIV receiving antiretoviral drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission has increased from 45% to 53% over that period (both figures from the WHO). We've heard exciting news about microbicides and other potential medical breakthroughs. Perhaps most significantly, the Pope and the Vatican appear to have taken a small step towards promotion of condom use (skeptical comments redacted--let's celebrate this).

But there's so much more to do, especially in PMTCT, which is key to an HIV-free generation. Discrimination and stigma are still incredibly high, and that's across countries at different levels of development--from South Africa to the US. There are still 1.4 million HIV-positive pregnant women every year (WHO) that need to be supported, cared for, and educated to prevent transmitting the virus to their babies. And the funding environment just keeps getting bleaker and bleaker (as if the Global Fund replenishment failure or the Obama administration's pre-election funding proposals weren't discouraging enough).

It's a time in the HIV/AIDS fight to both celebrate our accomplishments and to do a whole lot better.

You can make a difference on World AIDS Day. Here are a few ways:

Test. Know your status!
Learn. Check here for everything you need to know about HIV/AIDS. Or learn a bit about PMTCT at the m2m website.
Remember. Light a candle today and reflect on those who have been lost due to AIDS-related illnesses.
Support. Donate to or volunteer for an HIV/AIDS-related charity.
Listen. Seek out stories from those living with HIV. Please take a moment to watch this short clip:

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Quick Return to the World Cup

If you had anything to do with the World Cup, you definitely heard K'naan's "Waving Flag." Before the World Cup started, it played everywhere, including at the World Cup Draw on Long Street in December 2009 (I can't believe that was almost a year ago!). The song, through strange and mysterious FIFA machinations, went from being the "official" song of the World Cup to the Coca-Cola World Cup song. Shakira's "Waka Waka," of course, supplanted it to become the official song for FIFA.

I was talking the other day with friends about the song, and one of them reminded me that the original lyrics from K'naan's album "Troubadour" were very different from what got pushed out by the Coke people. Here are the original lyrics. And this is what you would have heard during the World Cup.

The first is a story about a young man who made it out (K'naan was born in Somalia and lived in Mogadishu during the civil war before moving to Canada at age thirteen and becoming an international artist). His work is often political--he was noticed by Senegalese superstar Youssou N'dour when he performed a spoken word piece at the UNHCR in 1999 criticizing its failed policies in Somalia. The second song is about soccer. Pure and simple.

The World Cup was a tricky thing. It gave a huge amount of positive attention to South Africa, and by extension, the entire continent. It was also incredibly expensive and required SA to shell out a lot of dough that might have been better spent on housing or social programs. It brought the country (and maybe the continent; I'm not sure I can answer that) together in a way that, apart from the Rugby World Cup in 1995, has perhaps never happened. I never felt safer or more a part of the community than I did during June and July of this year. But it was a false promise--things have largely gone back to the way they were, with some new (mostly empty) stadiums, a few better roads, and a lingering nostalgia (a nostalgia that was out in full force during the USA-SA friendly on the 17th, I'd like to add).

There are undeniable problems in South Africa and across the African continent. And there's also a lot of good happening, and a lot of hope. People are struggling everywhere to make a living, to do their best, despite overwhelming odds--they're making do with soda soap. The World Cup leaned pretty heavy on the latter--on the good--and this was very important. Many people think of Africa (one country, of course, and very small) as a place of flies and death and AK-47s and horrible diseases and skinny babies (or, even worse, as a place of elephants and "The Lion King" and pretty sunsets).

All of these are pretty obvious points that I'm making, I know. A bit (a lot) cliched. What I'm torn about, however, and trying to work towards, is the dilution of this K'naan song. And, perhaps, the dilution (I'm not trying to use this as a loaded term) of the image of Africa in the World Cup. There were nice photo-ops with babies and at health clinics--and NGOs got a lot of help and attention and coverage for the good things they're doing across SA and elsewhere. People who perhaps would never have come before came to SA and were safe, mostly. But it felt a little like putting on a nice smile and pretending like everything was OK. And of course, it's always more complicated than that.

Go take a listen of K'naan's original song. See what you think.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Photographing Apartheid

There's a great little slide show (and accompanying article) in the New York Times about the photographs of Ernest Cole, a black South African photographer who captured images of Apartheid in the early 1960s. He went into exile in 1966 and, sadly, was homeless in New York for some of the period before his death in 1990. His recently discovered photos are incredible, as well as painful and jarring. Go take a look.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

USA and South Africa Play Cape Town

Last night, I went to see a friendly between the US and South African soccer teams at the Cape Town Stadium. We scored incredible seats--second row on the sidelines down by the goal. For one hundred rand a ticket ($15). Admittedly, the US didn't play very well--they had the JV out, and it showed. Bafana Bafana deserved to win the game, and the Americans got in a lucky goal (it was a nice goal, and SA was just not finishing well, but the US certainly wasn't dominating the field). But so goes the beautiful game. You can see the game highlights from ESPN Sports Center (and Jamie and Mallory) here.

It was amazing to be there--like the World Cup all over again but without the FIFA Big Brother-ness (ie, beer wasn't Budweiser and only cost R15 instead of R35, there were actual replays on the Jumbotron, etc). Seeing Bafana Bafana play in Cape Town, which they haven't done in six years, was also exciting. And to FINALLY see the US play! It was great. I didn't realize how much I'd missed the World Cup until this game. It was also a lot of fun to be in the minority--though it did attract a smattering of unwanted attention, most South African supporters were so excited to see a few from the other side that everyone wanted to take pictures or cheer with us (we got a few epic "Oles" going). After the US won, almost all of the South African fans congratulated us and showed incredible sportsmanship, which I found impressive.

Making our way to the stadium...who knew that I would miss the sound of a vuvuzela?
Spoiler alert: the nostalgia faded after about 50 minutes of non-stop Chewbacca/bee droning during the game.

Jamie and me.

So many Bafana supporters.

And they were so nice--and wanted to be in our pictures and to share in all the fun. It was wonderful.

Durban and Soccer City are cool stadiums (stadia?). But Cape Town blows them out of the water.

Anthem time.

Biggest surprise of the night: SA President Jacob Zuma made an appearance. He spoke, but not even he could stop the vuvuzelas.

Even Jeanne got a little patriotic, I like to think.

The captains made a statement about PMTCT and the attainability of an HIV-free generation, which was the second biggest surprise of the night and very, very exciting!

Pre-kick off huddle.

On the right, Bafana captain Steven Pienaar and Siphiwe Tshabalala (I LOVE that name), who scored against Mexico in the World Cup opener.

Bafana corner kick. Our goalkeeper, Brad Guzan, played a great game.

The US wins. Bobby takes it all in.

It didn't take long to empty out the stadium.

More pictures are here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Last weekend, I went camping outside of Tulbagh at the Wild Olive Farm (with the usual suspects, of course). It was absolutely stunning. The farm is a working olive (duh) and wine farm, and there were a few cattle and horses around too. There were two (maybe three?) dams stocked with fish and lots of incredible birds (whatever; by the last morning I had people excited about a bird chasing a bug, so I think I finally won). It all reminded me a bit of home, from certain angles. Good food and wine, great company, lots of sunshine, and beautiful views. I forgot how much I missed being in the outdoors (even if sleeping in a tent does make your face puffy...and let's be real, this was pretty tame car camping. I was mocked by our campsite neighbors for bringing an electric tea kettle to boil water. Of course, they then asked to use it when their gas stove took hours to boil up their water for tea). Some of the following pictures are mine; others are credited to their rightful owner. The rest of my photos are up on Facebook.

The campsite.

First arrivals (Hannah, Melanie, Jamie, me).

There were two dams at the farm--this was the first.

And the second.

Getting ready for dinner (photo by Mallory).

The whole group (Top row: Melanie, Terrence, Mallory, Bobby, me, Jack, Bottom Row: Jeanne, Hannah, Jamie, Allie). Photo courtesy of Melanie.

Gathering around the fire on the first night (Hannah, Bobby, me, Jamie, Jack--Melanie took the photo).

Christmas card!
I know, it's disgusting.
(Jack, me, Allie, Jamie (front), Melanie, Bobby; photo courtesy of Melanie)

Melanie took this one.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why Yes. This Does Make Me Feel Better About American Politics

Because when your prime minister is caught up in a sex/orgy scandal called the "bunga bunga" (and please tell me dear readers that you know that term is just offensive) that starred a sex worker called Ruby the Heartbreaker, there's not a lot lower your country can sink.

And, of course Muammar al-Gaddafi is (OK, peripherally) involved in this.

Update November 11, 2010: This is why, in case you weren't sure, "bunga bunga" is an offensive term. And I realize that they're relating someone else's joke, but "primitive tribe," Slate? Really?

Monday, November 8, 2010

"HIV Babies" in the United States

There was an article in the New York Times published on Friday about "HIV Babies" in the US who are now reaching adulthood--those babies who contracted HIV from their mothers in the early 1990s. Pediatric infections are rare in the US today because prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT, also known as vertical transmission) treatment regimens can drop transmission rates below one percent and because there are health and social systems in place to support pregnant women who are HIV-positive.

Pediatric HIV is especially dangerous. One-third of HIV-positive babies will die before they reach one year of age and almost half will die before reaching age two if they are not diagnosed and treated early. Issues of treatment with, adherence to, resistance to and toxicity of antiretroviral drugs that must be taken for life are also complex (and many of the most efficacious drugs on the market today were not available in the early 1990s). One of the young men profiled in the article is, at age 20, the longest-living person born with HIV in Rhode Island.

There are also four short video segments with interviews from the young people interviewed for the article. The segments are both heartbreaking and hopeful--the stories of teasing and of stigma were especially sad. Before I came to work for m2m, I didn't know a huge amount about HIV and AIDS. I think it's shame, especially in the US, where many people diagnosed with HIV can and do live normal, healthy lives (albeit sometimes with complications, of course) that there is so much ignorance and so much stigma. There have been huge public health interventions to educate people about HIV and AIDS in the US, but a lot of us still don't know enough. With education comes a lessening of stigma, I think.

As a historically-inclined individual, I started reviewing the history of HIV and AIDS. Even though I know this, I am shocked every time that I start reading about what it was like in the earlier days of the epidemic--the public panic, the incredible activism, the horrible government responses, the sheer number of people who were dying. One image stuck with me--that of activists protesting Reagan's HIV/AIDS policies being arrested outside the White House by police clad in long yellow rubber gloves. This was in 1987, when I was one year old. There is, perhaps, more awareness now (and certainly less panic) about HIV/AIDS. The epidemic has changed, and it's no longer a death sentence as long as you can access treatment and support, just as having a child when you're living with HIV no longer presents as high of a risk to the child.

We've made some huge strides forward in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but there is, as always, so much more to do. Education is a good first step. As is public disclosure, the way that these (brave) young people have done. I'm not advocating that everyone living with HIV should step forward because everyone has the right to privacy. But what our Mentor Mothers do--which is, essentially, public disclosure--and what people like Magic Johnson have done is vital to raising awareness and de-stigmatization of the virus.

So, if you have a chance, go check out one of the articles I've linked to above or do some research on your own. A good place to start is AVERT's website.

Update, November 10, 2010: Hannah has a great perspective on pediatric HIV and the differences in care between the US and developing countries over on her blog. You should check it out.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Nairobi in Pictures, Part 2: Views from a Car Window

This is part 2 of my pictures from Nairobi. You can see part 1 here. The pictures below were all snapped while braving Nairobi traffic, so please excuse any strange angles or other less-than-ideal photographic aesthetics.

Not a good photo, but I feel like it encapsulates much of Nairobi for me. The big Land Cruisers bumper-to-bumper, small shops selling everything you could ever want or need, the fact that it's off-kilter because everything was going by so fast and was so chaotic that I just pointed, clicked, and hoped it would come out OK.

I don't think this qualifies as a matatu (also known as a poda-poda in Sierra Leone, taxi/minibus/kombi in SA or car-rapide in Senegal), but you get the idea. In the slum areas, there were speed bumps so tall that our Princess Taxi bottomed out on every single one--a necessity to keep matatus and other vehicles from tearing through the streets and running down children.

There were billboards everywhere. I didn't realize how non-commercialized South Africa was until I got to Nairobi. It's certainly the most jarring thing for me when I return to the US--how much one is just bombarded with consumer culture 24/7. It was similar in Nairobi. It was also weird how low the billboards were--maybe that's a testament to how much more pedestrian traffic there is...

At times it seemed like all of Nairobi was ripped up. The Chinese have, among other things, invested heavily in roads and other transportation infrastructure, including constructing Nairobi's first ring road. One of the people I was with characterized this as "too little, too late," but the traffic really can't be worse than it is now, so who knows? In the background is a beautiful Hindu temple that had elephants (perhaps Ganesha? We went by too fast to see) as pillars and incredibly intricate carvings.

Slightly closer view of the temple.

All of the construction (and unpaved roads) kicked up a lot of dust. In a way, it was comforting to get back to the hotel and see that the inside of my elbows (arm creases?) were caked in dirt. It felt very familiar, as did sweating my face off while having smog spewed on me from dilapidated buses crammed full of people.

Houses by the roadside--I can't remember where I took this.

An insurance ad on the roadside. I thought it spoke to the realities (or perhaps just the perceptions) of life in Kenya. I'd guess that the post-election violence of 2007-2008 is still strong in most Kenyans' minds, not surprisingly.

There were gas stations everywhere. It was weird. You might not be able to tell from the photo, but this is an OiLibya station. Not something you'd ever see in the US. Side note: funny story about Libya, actually. Back in January 2009 when I was still in Sierra Leone, I traveled to Freetown to drop off my (very brave) family and to pick up a bunch of volunteers that were coming up to Bo to work with us. I show up at the hotel next to the airport (which, by the way, is a four-hour ferry ride on a falling-apart boat or a seven-minute helicopter ride piloted by drunk Ukrainians) to make sure the rooms are ready, only to discover that Gaddafi is visiting Sierra Leone. He supported and trained the leaders of the Revolutionary United Front (among other "liberation movements" in Africa), which was responsible for forcibly recruiting child soldiers, cutting off hands, and other atrocities in the eleven year Sierra Leonean civil war. To atone for this, Gaddafi is now a big "friend" of the SL government and donated the ferries that carry passengers back and forth across the bay to the airport (as well as some other stuff, I'm sure). Anyway, his state visit meant that the entire hotel was commandeered for the evening so that he could, I'd venture, set up his tent in the back garden. This resulted in some last minute scrambling and lots of insistent talking until I was able to secure rooms for the volunteers. I'm not sure I've ever forgiven Gaddafi for this. Even if he does sort of look like Bob Dylan from some angles and is possibly one of the most fascinating, fashion-forward, and eccentric dictators around. OK, end of side note, back to Kenya.

The ubiquitous chair shop. They always look so comfortable until you plop down in one and realize it's made of creepy faux velvet, splintery (and rickety) wood, and thin mattress foam that will mold to your body over time until the chair becomes a backwards Snuggie of sorts that drains all the life out of you. I love these chairs.

You could find anything on the side of the road in Nairobi. Including throw pillows.

There were also these incredible roadside nurseries with seedlings and plants stored in black plastic bags. This was possibly my favorite thing about the city. When my org's founder visited Nairobi a while back, he asked the taxi driver what the owners did with the plants at night, since anything not nailed down (and some things that are) will get stolen if left unattended overnight in Nairobi. The taxi driver looked at him like he was crazy and said, "Kenyans don't steal plants."