Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cockroach AIDS: World Aids Day.

Dambudzo Marechera died on August 18th, 1987, from AIDS related causes. In his work, he refers on a number of occasions to his cockroach life, an image that conjures disease and his compound-eye-view of human existence. The multi-faceted eye view applies quite well to AIDS. Facts are multiple and the whole picture is made of many fragments and reproductions. There is a mass of information.

The theme for World AIDS Day, 2006, is accountability and remembering. But what do you remember? Personal anecdote or impersonal statistics? The human dimension or the inhuman scale of the problem?

From a personal angle, I remember setting off to work and opening a friend’s letter. I intended to journey and read the letter for pleasure. Consequently, I was not prepared when a form fell out of the letter, an HIV test result. Fearing that he might have AIDS and wanting to know if he should plan his future in Accountancy or not, he had taken himself off to find his HIV status—to see if he was safe from the nameless disease as his Malawian friends termed it. As much as I was relieved to see that the test had come back negative, I was shocked by the decision he had made. This was not the UK. There was no pre-test discussion. No comfortable waiting room and sanitized surroundings. No after care in the form of counselling or medical support. He had simply walked into a testing site, been tested, given his result and sent on his way. Like an accountant, he had priced his life. No point in seeking funding for education if you are going to die and waste someone’s money. He had faced death with amazing equanimity just to be certain that life was worth fighting for.

We (?) seem to have come to a point of dubious acceptance with AIDS. If the media picks up stories, these are stories of threat and excitement. Not too long ago, the fascination was with gay men who hunted the virus: to catch it. Newspapers ran the story with a horror-film mentality: the more extreme the evil, the greater the intrigue and thrill for the viewer. The recently shown and much acclaimed Line of Beauty depicted another sort of social lie. AIDS for the rich, white, Oxbridge educated male became a tragedy of secrecy and beauty cut short. For the black, working class male, it was an off-the-stage death: it happened, was sad, but did not amount to tragedy. The tv version presented a Romantic vision in which the death of “Wani”, the “most beautiful man ever met” by the central character, was made to matter far more than the lonely death of Leo. Perhaps, it could be argued that Hollinghurst here shows a political truth: rich matters more than poor, white more than black…which is the case globally. I wouldn’t, however, be that convinced by this excuse. And both of these media representations still cling to the greatest lie: AIDS is still about gay men. The truth is anything but this misconceived fact. AIDS becomes about gay men when there is a need to be scandalised—or to scapegoat. But AIDS is very much to do with everyone else when we (?) need to salve or consciences—to feel sorry and show sympathy.

So, the cockroach’s eye:

The developed countries are responding to the danger of AIDS.A recent report shows that 23% of gay teenagers in the UK have sex before 13 and 58% before the age of consent at 16. But little of the education curriculum prepares them for this…and all of these teenagers are the responsibility of schools and the Government.

In the USA, more testing is taking place, but HIV cases are being picked up far too late, a fact that matters greatly when early intervention determines the life expectancy of the individual.

There is no difference according to race in the developed countries.In the UK, the higher rates of HIV infections are related to racial and cultural backgrounds.

A recent report in the USA, recognises 51% of new HIV cases are among African-Americans—half the new cases from one tenth of the population. When the figures are put bluntly, they show that black men are more at risk than women and an African-American gay man is three times more likely to become infected than a straight African-American man. Still, after more than two decades, nothing has changed and black gay men remain the most vulnerable human beings in the USA.

The fight is all about safe sex.
Actually, no. Though this a line still pursued, as Sontag pointed out long ago, in a struggle that is viewed, not in terms of love and care, but in terms of militaristic metaphors and eroticism.

The NMAC Report has this to say about the spread of HIV.

"A lot of what animates the sexual behaviour [of black MSM] is a sense of shame - it's subversive, it's secretive, it's hidden, it's rushed, and in that sense it's not safe… MSM approach their sexual lives with a certain level of fatalism."

Attitudes to sexuality and feeling have much to do with the problem. The developed world forces its inhabitants to live in a highly sexualised way: identity is knowledge and no greater knowledge exists than carnal knowledge. Young adults are brought up to believe that sexual acts and identity are the same. The UK might be appalled by the number of young gay men that pursue sexual experiences. The UK should be equally appalled by the way it surrounds young gay men with the attractiveness of a sexualised life style before they know enough about themselves to make a choice. I remember one eminent commentator on black gay issues joking (on his blog) about what might occur if high and low culture were fused. Personally, I do not think that it is a joke. It is ironical that great writers, such as Baldwin, Hemphill, Duncan or Gunn, say, grew up in fear of what they were, and regretted having no areas of feeling/literature to which to go, yet we now have a situation where gay men happily grow up in ignorance of what was created at great personal cost. It shows immense stupidity, that a literature of diversity and divergence has been cast aside, through an ignorance of literature, for simplistic images of same gender loving individuals: erotic and promiscuous, living for the moment. It is being divorced from areas of feeling that causes individuals to operate with a limited range of sensations.

For women, the threat from HIV and AIDs comes from imagery too. They live under the shadow of the sexual whore: it is their promiscuous natures that supposedly make them carriers of the disease. The truth could not be more different. In Nicaragua, it is the married, chaste woman who is at most risk: at risk from the promiscuity of the husband and the threat of domestic violence. The rate of infection is highest among women in Sub-Saharan Africa—double that of the rate among men.( But look for images of suffering among famous photographers and it is the suffering of men that will be seen). The issue for women worldwide is inseparable from gender issues, coercion and submission: the fact that women are given little say in their lives, their diagnosis, their treatment and expectations.

Safe sex messages matter considerably.
What can you say when Uganda, in 2005, stock-piled 35,000.000 condoms rather than be open about AIDS? Even so, it is prejudice that does the greatest damage. At the recent ILGA Conference, in Geneva, where Africa was a major voice, this point was made: Africa lives in smoke-screens. The latest is same sex marriage. But this is not what really needs to be debated, though it is where the Anglican, Catholic and Islamic religions would like the argument to be: an argument easily won! The real issue is human rights at a very basic level. The argument was made that the White Man did not bring same sex love to Africa. That existed long before the White Man. No, what the White Man gave to Africa was out-dated sodomy laws and inhuman legislation. The African voice prophetically spoke out against patriarchal and post-colonial oppression: “an Africa where no one’s health is held hostage to either money or morals.” And that final point resonates far beyond sexual issues. It is the denial of AIDS, not wanting to spend money or confront moral difficulties, accept a restricted view of humanity, that has allowed AIDS to ravage Africa more than any other continent and destroy so many. AIDS is an opportunistic infection and a negligence bordering on evil has given the disease every opportunity in Africa--it has attacked regardless of gender, sexuality, religion or age. Usually, those four words would be seen in equal opportunity policies. Cruelly, in a continent so unequal, AIDS has made its own own equal opportunity agenda: suffering and death.

In the UK, there is one new HIV diagnosis every hour.
In the World, 60 children die every hour and 5600 adults because of AIDS.
40, 000, 000 people live with AIDS in the World currently.
AIDS has killed more than twice the number of people who survived slavery and the Middle Passage.
Has killed more than 22 Rwandan genocides.
Has killed more than 4 Holocausts.
And the number of predicted deaths are phenomenal. By 2010, India alone will probably have more victims of AIDS than have currently died from AIDS—one country will replicate all that has happened in 20 years.

Perhaps, an image to consider. It says much about accountability (Copyright Gideon Mendel).


Unsane said...

Unfortunately, whereas a lot of what you say is true, one of the reasons why the west has taken various stances which have not helped Africa and Africans is due to an ubiquitous bad faith -- indeed the desire of many westerners to believe themselves purer than pure. I have had the privelege to see how westerners will often try to feel this way by casting aspersions against "colonialism". Yet in a more balanced perspective colonialism was never as bad as many evils in the world today. It has a very negative resonance -- and the reason for this is because Westerners themselves feel a sense of collective guilt concerning their history of colonialism. Yet, if it had no symbolic meaning to the westerners themselves, they would certainly not find any interest in talking about it. The Westerners are, you know, concerned with the Westerners, and with their own self-identities. AIDS is an African issue, and so, next to colonialism, it ranks very low as a kind of evil. Since Westerners cannot morally rectify AIDS by making a mere symbolic adjustment in their minds, they are not interested in it. One cannot so easily make moral mileage out of distancing oneself from a disease as one can by trying to distance oneself from a historical period.

Marechera himself was not so anticolonial as most Westerners are. That is because his critiques were somehow more geared towards the concrete situation of what colonialism actually was, in his experience, rather than allowing it to stand for an idea of absolute evil. (See the short play, "The Wall" for a depiction of the actual evils of colonialism --what is depicted here would be hardly understood, I believe, by the most most adamant western proclaimer of his own personal good in having shed his evil outer layer and broad political history.)

The academic west's tendency towards moral posturing whilst trying to escape the implications of their own past is what leads to a big moral hole with regard to the desperate issues of the present (Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa)

But still, these westerners are addicted to their moral superiority fix, and they must have it.

Anonymous said...

Not necessarily related to the previous comment but people everywhere are addicted to the current, that is, until they are educated about the thing they will soon be next addicted to.

If we can convince these "Africans", their descendants , and other groups that their is an addiction to protection, will that lead to the eradification of the very thing that inversely employs the cause? If not, what will?

Finding the truth is a journey that leads to freedom. Nothing can stop a person who is on a path to freedom. It was wisdom that lead your friend to actively seek out the status of a potential roadblock.

What does that say about the people whose status is positive? What does that say about their stock of wisdom and the knowledge that they collect? Can these things we say lead to a detour on this red road, or will we continue to gain the knowledge and not act upon it because it takes experience to gain wisdom; and by then it might be too late.

BOA said...

When Ye Pray, Ye African, Say

Our Masters
Who Art in Geneva & Elsewhere
Haloed be thy manes
Thy Condoms Come,
Thy will be done in this heart of darkness
As it is within your snow-sniffing skyscrapers
Give us this night
Our AntiRetroviral Therapy
And forgive us our inability to pay
As we forgive those who continue to have sex without condoms.
And lead us not into extinction
But deliver us from ourselves
For thine is the Condom, the Strategy and the Wherewithal
Forever and ever,

(c) Omo Alagbede, 2007

eshuneutics said...

A rather bitter, but very effective poem.
Condom/alchemical Golem.
I appreciate the puns and the irony.