During a WhatsApp chat last week, a volunteer in my group highly recommended that I read “28: Stories of AIDS in Africa” by Stephanie Nolen. As others in the group talked about the book, those same recommendations were echoed. I had been planning to read it at some point. I figured now was a great time for it.
I’ll start by saying that the book was very worthy of all of the praise and recommendations. Nolen, a Canadian journalist, wrote the book while living in Johannesburg, South Africa as The Globe and Mail’s Africa Bureau Chief. She manages to highlight various political and cultural issues intermingled with the stories of 28 people affected by HIV in Africa. As I progressed through the book, I was very excited because the stories gave me a better understanding of the cultural landscape across sub-Saharan Africa in general, and Swaziland, in particular (two people’s stories were from Swaziland).
There’s the issue of a lack of women’s empowerment. Several stories, including one from Swaziland, were about married women who contracted the virus from their husbands. In many of these stories, the married woman wouldn’t dare ask her husband to use a condom. This remained true even if the wife suspected or knew that her husband had multiple sexual partners. To ask him to use a condom would be considered disrespectful, and she risked being thrown out of the home.
Then, there’s the issue of transactional sex. Some stories prominently featured people who engaged in transactional sex for a myriad of reasons. Lack of money. Lack of food. Lack of transportation. Lack of other employment opportunities. Lack of skills. I have heard stories during my short time here in Swaziland about double orphaned (meaning that both parents are deceased) pubescent girls who are in charge of looking after their younger siblings. Because these girls often lack things like food and money, they become prime targets for transactional sex, and subsequently are at higher risk of contracting HIV.
Reading this book at this time in my life presents a unique perspective. I am a part of the western world’s response to AIDS on the continent. While I know that there are people in DC and around the world living with HIV, it’s much more “in your face” here in Swaziland. A part of the Ministry of Education curriculum includes lessons of HIV awareness, prevention, testing and counselling. Free condoms are distributed around the country as a part of the “Got it? Get it.” campaign. Many NGOs operate in Swaziland with expressed purpose of reducing HIV incidence (new infections). I’m excited to, hopefully, be a part of the solution, and to continue learning.
Be kind to yourself.