Monday, June 4, 2012

We are all living with HIV

It is 4 a.m. and the compound next door has 2 new dogs. These horrible canines have snatched my slumber, forcing me awake as they bark their little doggy faces off. I lie under my mosquito net of questionable condition (I have somehow managed to get Malaria), eating stale chocolate and pondering.

Aside from selfishly wondering if Malawi might have an animal welfare organization, I’ve also been thinking about HIV and AIDS.

Last weekend was the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial.

Started in San Francisco in 1983, Candlelight has grown to become one of the world's largest and longest standing international advocacy events. The first Candlelight consisted of 4 men who wanted to put a face to a mysterious disease that was ravaging parts of Africa and the gay male community in the Western World. They stood behind a banner reading ‘Fighting for our Lives’. Each of them died that following year.

Since then, the 3rd Sunday of May has marked a time to remember those who we have lost to AIDS related illness and to advocate collectively for a better future.

Candlelight 2012 Malawi

The Malawi Network of People Living with HIV (MANET+) coordinates the Candlelight Memorial in Malawi.  Being a MANET+ volunteer, I had the privilege of attending candlelight and getting the inside scoop on how huge an undertaking it is.

The event was held in a big field to accommodate upwards of 5,000 people. A radio jingle was commissioned (resulting in lots of in-office dancing), t-shirts and Chitenje cloth were manufactured. Posters were designed and printed. The president herself was invited and a 40 person taskforce was formed.

The day was a success: the venue was packed and the Vice-President of Malawi presided over the event! After starting with a ‘Solidarity Walk’, there were all kinds of performances – drama, dancing, speeches by various representatives from civil society, international organizations and politicians.

Solidarity Walk

Women Living with HIV Dance Group Watching Performances

Dance Performance

Candlelight Around the World

I’ve attended Candlelight in Ottawa before. Like so many memories of my home country, the image appears in my mind’s eye as an overexposed photo - slightly faded and with a dream-like quality. The memorial involved a small group of people gathering at dusk, a speech by a person living with HIV and taking a moment of silence to light candles in remembrance. 

The differences between the Ottawa and Lilongwe Candlelight memorials has got me thinking about the varied nature of the epidemic throughout the world. How do the organizers choose one single theme that applies globally? 

This year the theme was ‘Promoting Health and Dignity Together’.

We are all Living with HIV

In Chichewa, Malawi’s National Language, there is a proverb that reads ‘Zidze pano ndi zatonse’. Translating roughly as ‘What happens to one of us, befalls all of us’, this proverb speaks to the fact that we are all intricately interconnected. During his speech, the UNAIDS Country Director emphasized that this collective Malawian mentality must be extended to how we view HIV. In a country with one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world (estimated at 10.8% of the adult population), there is no doubt that we are all living with HIV.
For some of us, the virus is in our bodies. For others it is in our families, our workplaces and loved ones. It is without doubt in every community. It is in our decisions, our individual and collective consciousness, pain and hope.

Zidze pano ndi zatonse – we are all living with HIV here.

Believe, a fellow Canadian volunteer and I.
'Kulimbikitsa Umoyo ndi Umunthu Pamodzi' (Promoting Health and Dignity Together)

I would argue that even outside of HIV-endemic countries, we are all living with HIV. Although my home country of Canada has a low prevalence (estimated at .04%), HIV unmistakably highlights places in society where stigma and marginalization exist. For example, many of our prisons have prevalence rates comparable to Malawi. New immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are at greatest risk of contracting the virus as well as injecting drug users, men who have sex with men and Aboriginal peoples.

It is not just in Canada where you find the most marginalized groups affected - the trend is the same in both developed and developing parts of the world. For example, HIV has an unmistakably female face in sub-Saharan Africa. Wherever you go, there is a correlation between disempowerment and HIV.

Why is it that the most disempowered people bear the burden of this virus?  

Let’s remember that from a purely physical angle, HIV is only a chronic, treatable condition. In many ways it is no different than hypertension or diabetes, in that you can live a long healthy life with HIV as long as you have access to treatment. So what is different about HIV that has spurred so much misunderstanding, stigma and fear?

I would argue a few things:

1) The memory of a time before the availability of anti-retroviral medication when HIV was a death sentence.
2) The fact that the virus is spread through the most intimate and silenced acts that we engage in as humans (sex, bringing life into the world, injecting drugs, violence).
3) HIV is so often a development issue because of stigma and socialized behaviours that put the most marginalized people at highest risk.  It is easiest to talk above a quiet voice.

HIV highlights the real illnesses that are plaguing our planet: systems of marginalization and exploitation that perpetuate inequality and poverty. HIV is how these illnesses often manifest in our bodies, our communities and our world.  

If we are all first and foremost human beings, we are all indeed living with HIV. Our children have been orphaned, our environment affected, our dignity compromised.

Choosing Change

Turning the tide on HIV isn’t just about telling people to use a condom or clean needle. It is about changing the very systems that perpetuate inequality - systems of which we are all a part.

I believe that the mentality of ‘otherness’ is a gash that is hurting our world and fueling the spread of HIV. I think that we each have the ability to heal this through consciously and lovingly deconstructing the systems that have caused so much pain to humanity.

Instead of allowing HIV to add to our sense of disconnectedness from one another, why can’t we use the virus as a challenge to remember that we are all interconnected?

Lets take this virus that affects us as a starting point for change by loving and honouring our bodies. In the same way our bodies are composed of individual cells, lets remember that we are each a part of a greater whole.

I have found comfort, purpose and a sense of solidarity by choosing to critically examine how my attitudes, behaviours and actions interact with systems of power and marginalization. It is an on-going challenge and I have barely scratched the surface on what it means to live consciously, but I keep trying because I believe that this is what is required to shift towards healing the causes of HIV. 

This year’s Candlelight theme of ‘Promoting Health and Dignity Together’ is a call to remember that which befalls one of us befalls all of us.

Nkosi Johnson also saw our commonality as human beings before HIV status. A South African boy born with HIV, he addressed the World AIDS Conference when he was 11 years old, the year before his death. He said: 

We are all the same.
We are not different from one another.
We all belong to one family.
We love and we laugh, we hurt and we cry, we live and we die.
Care for us and accept us. We are all human beings.
We are normal. We have hands. We have feet. We can walk, we can talk – and we have needs just like everyone else.
Don’t be afraid of us.
We are all the same.

Zidze pano ndi zatonse and goodnight.

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