Connection

July 1, 2007

I work at a store. Many, many people come through my checkout each day, though the dominant group is Southern, middle-class, middle-age white women. So when someone different comes through my line, I often take interest.

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Two nights ago a black man with an accent came through my line. The accent was strong and from Anglophone Africa (and I’ve met a few people from Ghana in my town), so I asked “Do you mind if I ask where you’re from?”

“Over there in neighborhood X,” he said, referring to a place right down the road.

“Ah, ok.”

“But before that, South Africa.”

“A beautiful country. Where are you from in South Africa?”

Pauses for a second, thinking I’m probably just asking to be polite and won’t know wherever he names. “Have you heard of a place called Soweto?”

“Yeah, I’ve been there.” His eyes light up with amusement.

“Oh really? Where you living there?”

As I hand him his change, “No, I was just working as a volunteer for a few weeks.”

“Great, where at in Soweto?”

As I hand him his receipt, “Well, mostly outside of Soweto, but I was at Baragwanath Hospital several times.”

“I lived right by the power station near there, do you know it?”

“No, sorry.”

And then he was gone. If I hadn’t had another customer in line I probably would’ve asked what brought him to America, and especially to Searcy. There just aren’t many (black) South Africans in my town (I know a few white ones) and I’m always curious to hear the path that brought people from so far away. I enjoyed the brief little connection of shared knowledge of a place, even in Small Town, USA. Maybe he’ll come back through.


If You Don’t Like to Think About AIDS, Don’t Read This.

June 10, 2007

Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece recently entitled “Save the Darfur Puppy.” I think he was going for getting a reaction with the title, and it worked, at least with me. You’ve probably notice that the media loves stories about endangered species–always cute, cuddly ones, never rodents–because people are moved by these stories. On the other hand, a crisis like the genocide in Darfur is unlikely to get airplay commensurate with its magnitude. And likewise with AIDS, which despite being of tragic scale–two or three flaming World Trade Centers full of people dying every day–rarely hits the news, in part because it’s the same old, depressing story, every day.

So, when I saw that Truthdig had an interview called “Stop Ignoring AIDS and Africa,” I gravitated light-wards. The piece is an interview of Stephanie Nolen, the author of a new book called “28: Stories of AIDS in Africa” which tells one narrative of a (real, actual, living and breathing) human being with HIV in Africa for every one million of the estimated 28 million living with the virus. I certainly plan on reading this book, but here’s what really caught my eye–this picture:

And its caption:

Bongos, an 8-year-old HIV-positive boy, waits in a hallway at the Sparrow Rainbow Village medical clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa, in November 2005.

This really hits home, because I volunteered at Sparrow back in 2005. They do incredible work, and my few weeks there were extremely moving. Sparrow is an orphanage and adult hospice–a “village”–where those with HIV are cared for. The corridor in the background is the central part of Sparrow’s administrative center, which connects some of the hospital rooms (for the sickest patients), a kitchen, administrative offices, and even a makeshift morgue. Because most of the patients there receive some level of antiretroviral treatment Sparrow is really, sadly, one of the best places to be in Johannesburg if you’re a kid with HIV.

Here are some compelling quotes from Nolen’s interview on Truthdig:

You show people a picture of one sad-looking puppy and everyone runs for their wallet, and you tell them that 30,000 children die a day of diseases that can be prevented for less than a buck and nobody gives a rat’s ass. I don’t know what it is, what that says about us as a species, but I certainly know from a long time reporting about HIV in Africa that it’s true.

On narrating an issue where the statistics are numbing:

Their lives could not look more different in some ways than the lives of an American or a Canadian. But when you sit down in the little counselor’s booth in Malawi or Lusaka and they say to you, “You have AIDS, you’re going to die,” that doesn’t feel different than it would if you were in America. And it’s getting people to realize that those people had all—sure, they’re Africans—but they had all those same expectations around their lives. They want to graduate from high school, they want to start a little business, they want to, you know, persuade that really cute girl they’ve been eyeing for a long time to go out with them. It isn’t any different. You’ve really got to go, go really micro to make people understand that story, to get them past the numbers.

On finding stories of progress:

You know, I think we get very often this perception of it being a grim story where not very much changes…We also don’t hear that huge progress has been made in responding. There were, for example, when I started reporting on this full-time, there were fewer than 100,000 people on treatments and today there are 1.5 million in Africa. And everybody said, “You can’t do it, there’s no way you can treat in Africa.” Well, that’s a 13-fold increase in four years, and those people have better survival rates on treatment than most Americans on treatment do. So lots of victories.

On money and broken promises and the real roadblock to widespread treatment programs (trained health care professionals):

And there’s a lot more money available than there was….They need about $6.8 billion to meet those proposals, and they have, you know, like, $1.85 in change. Constantly, countries promise money and don’t deliver or don’t promise anything like what’s needed to respond. So we need money. I think, even more than money, these days we’re realizing that there are some more intractable problems that are going to need more creative solutions. So you can use that money to fly in boxes and boxes of pills. You can’t fly in nurses, doctors, pharmacists. I mean, you can fly in a few, but not enough to meet the needs of a whole, continent-wide healthcare program, right?

On the underlying economic inequalities that drive the epidemic:

You know, I meet lots of young women who’ve been given information about HIV but who are selling sex down at truck stops because their parents have died, they’re raising their siblings and that’s the only option that they have. So, you know, they say, “Fine, we’ve been told about HIV in the safe-sex textbooks, but HIV might kill me in five years or 10 years and we’re all going to starve to death next week if I don’t do this.” So, you can address some of the obvious things around prevention, but unless you change the factors that drive people into risky behavior, then you haven’t achieved very much.

And, a bit further afield, but still in Africa, on Darfur and the war in Uganda:

And, you know, it’s also interesting to talk about Darfur because, yeah, there are probably 300, 350,000 dead there and a lot of people displaced, but it is in fact a far smaller conflict than the war in northern Uganda which has been going on for 21 years. You have four times as many people displaced in northern Uganda. You have four times as many people dead. Well, when did we last hear about that one, right? I mean, Darfur is suddenly sexy because George Clooney goes there and, meanwhile, the war in northern Uganda that relies almost entirely on child soldiers … you don’t hear about that one.

On Bush’s PEPFAR program (providing treatment for AIDS in Africa):

Well, you know, I’ve done a lot of call-in radio lately where people call up and are yelling about the Bush administration letting people die, and here they are, spending all these billions of dollars in Iraq. Why don’t they do something in Africa? So I say to people, “Well, guess what? Actually the $15-billion, five-year program to intervene for AIDS in Africa, that the Bush administration dreamed up, has been the single greatest response to the pandemic ever.” And then there’s kind of silence on the end of the phone, you know?

And its problems:

…They’re saying a group that’s going to get U.S. funds to distribute condoms or put AIDS programs in schools or care for sick people, has to sign a piece of paper condemning sex work. And that’s like crazy moral language that just has no place in a place where people are selling sex to eat.

I like Stephanie Nolen. And I like Truthdig.

(If you’d like to learn more about or donate to Sparrow, please do so!)


The Kite Runner

June 5, 2007

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My parents gave me a copy of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner for Christmas, and it’s a tribute to the crazily-high-busy-ness quotient of the past semester that I just now got to it.

Hosseini immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan and became a physician, a profession he only gave up after the success of his novels. The Kite Runner is his first novel, and runs in a sort of parallel to his own life. Amir, the main character, grows up in Afghanistan and ends up fleeing to the U.S. during that country’s decades of violence.

The Kite Runner is one of those excellent books where fiction may give one a better introduction to a reality that nonfiction ever could. The characters are imaginary, but in a sense they are very real, telling stories about their country’s history, its culture, its religion, its prejudices, and its wars. Amir is an upper-class Pashtun who has a conflicted friendship with Hassan, the son of his father’s Hazara servant. Much of the book centers on Amir’s guilt over an incident from his childhood and his struggle to redeem himself.

It’s not perfect though. At times I thought the coincidences–such as in meeting the same characters repeatedly, unexpectedly–veered away from realism. The book could have used a few more characters not vital to the plot to flesh it out, but this doesn’t interfere too much. If you want to know more about Afghanistan, The Kite Runner is probably an excellent first book to draw you into a world that is otherwise utterly foreign. And maybe reading it will help humanize the people of Afghanistan, in a way that Americans desperately need.


When the Window is the View

January 15, 2007

Sometimes the window itself can be more interesting than what’s on the other side. Zoom in on these pictures and check out the patterns; they truly fascinate me. Too bad ice has to bring such bad weather as well…

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The Grand Canyon

January 12, 2007

It’s really amazing for being just another hole in the ground. Thank you Colorado River.

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Guadalupe Pass

January 7, 2007

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Cruising the Nile

December 22, 2006

These pictures were taken on a cruise and a felucca ride on the mighty Nile, from Aswan down the nile (north) to Luxor, Egypt. The mausoleum in some of the pictures is that of Aga Khan III, the 48th imam of Shia Ismaili Muslims.

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