Monday, February 28, 2011

The Fear of HIV

"An estimated 17,000 people died of AIDS in America in 2009 alone, yet increasingly AIDS is seen as an ‘overseas’ or an ‘African’ problem, rather than something that directly affects American citizens." ~

The Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), considered a pandemic by the World Health Organization, is considered to be a death sentence for anyone who contracts it. HIV, we all know, leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

In the developing world, or more specific to my experiences, in Kenya - there has been and continues to be a mass educational campaign to reduce the rates of HIV infections throughout the country. Certainly, there are many myths and misconceptions regarding HIV (for example, that drinking camel urine every day for a year will cure HIV). As the educational campaign continues, certain communities are seeing a drop in the number of HIV infections.

Part of the educational campaign includes encouraging people to make sure that they know their HIV status before engaging in copulation. Testing is free of charge and generally available in many parts of the country - almost all clinics offer testing and counseling services, as do hospitals. That's not to say that the education does not just stop there. The education approach to HIV also includes youth groups doing activities and just about any activity from sports to environmental clean ups to just about anything can have an HIV component - include a pre- or post- event discussion and wham! HIV education is part of the activity.
Image: an education poster in Kenya; image taken from media gallery.

Now, let's contrast this to the U.S.

If my memory serves me right, the only time I remember having any kind of discussion or talk about HIV/AIDS in the U.S. was in my high school driver's ed and health class (interesting how those two subjects are combined into one semester, right?). The topic of HIV in that class was simply a subtopic when discussing sexually transmitted diseases/infections.
In fact, I wouldn't even really know where I'd go for an HIV test if I even had thought I'd possibly might have been exposed. I suppose I'd probably end up going to a hospital.

In terms of the actual HIV test, here in Kenya - many people have a fear of being seeing going to a testing location for fear of finding out that they have been given a death sentence: a positive test result.
Or at least that has been the perception: HIV+ means death. But in more recent times, more and more Kenyans are realizing that even contracting the HIV virus does not mean one's life is over. There are antiretroviral drugs (commonly called ARVs) which, combined with a healthy diet, can lead to many wonderful years of life having contracted the infection.

In the U.S., I've been told by a person who's gone through it, the HIV testing procedure is kept 100% secret. The only people in the room are the pathologist who is performing the test and the patient. Everyone else is asked to leave the room. Only the pathologist knows what's going to happen until the room is empty at which time the patient is told: 'you're going to be tested for HIV'.

This brings the question to mind: is there more fear of HIV in the U.S. than in Kenya? I mean certainly the rates of HIV in the U.S. are the following:
  • Estimated 1.1 Million people living with an HIV infection, out of an estimated population of 300+ million
  • by the end of 2007 there were 470,902 people living with an AIDS diagnoses in the United States
By comparison, in Kenya:
  • Estimated 1.5 Million people living with an HIV infection, out of an estimated population of 39 million
Statistically speaking, the chances of getting HIV are certainly less but that does not mean that HIV does not exist in the U.S.
Perhaps it is time for Americans to wake up to the reality that HIV affects Americans as well, not just members of developing countries.
The website, the source of the aforementioned statistics, states "Of all the industrialized countries in the world, America is home to the largest number of people living with HIV. Tens of thousands of people are newly infected with HIV in America every year"

So what can we do? First we need to wake up the reality: HIV is not an African problem. Once we have debunked that myth we can begin to come up with educational systems in place to increase awareness and one day eliminate the fear and stigma of living with HIV.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Giving and Taking

It's not how much we give but how much love we put into giving. ~Mother Teresa

Peace Corps service has been described in many interesting ways: a roller coaster of emotions with its extreme highs and lows; a life-defining leadership experience; ‘the hardest job you’ll ever love'

While it has been a challenging experience with some terrible lows and extremely wonderful highs, I can’t but reflect on what I’ve given and what I’ve taken. As you’ve probably realized by now, I don’t mean give and take in terms of material things.

This past weekend a friend of mine, a former Peace Corps Volunteer made a comment like ‘you come to give help and you end up taking so much more.’

Indeed this is very true. I’ve come to give assistance in the form of support, ideas, inspiration to the local community. It is likely very difficult to be able to truly realize the impact of a PCV, especially during their service. Today’s minor achievements may end up as a foundation for the next premier of a country or perhaps a very successful business that will revolutionize the industry.

Or today’s minor achievements may simply remain today’s minor achievements.

How can we know the impact we will have on tomorrow today? We can but guess what the real impact will be. One thing is for sure though, the more effort and unconditional love we bring to our communities, the more the impact will be. Even if the community does not end up becoming the next greatest and most luxurious tourist spot in the country the community will be all the better for having had a volunteer who cared enough to spend time away from home in a foreign land and willingly gave of themselves the best they had to give to the community.

In return, the volunteer will take much more than they could have asked or hoped for. For in their two years of service the volunteer gains perspective and expands their knowledge of the world.

A cousin and dear friend of mine, March, wrote a note on Facebook recently a story of something she experienced during the December/Christmas time.
In the note she wrote that she was on a bus ride and saw a lady who was crying. When asked why, the lady said "I am hungry and had no money for food". March went on to explain that two well-dressed, attractive women got on the bus and sat near her. These two ladies, my cousin wrote, had large parcels of Christmas presents and were talking about going to Apple and looking for some gifts there. “Excuse me,” March said, as politely as she could. “The woman there is hungry. She is staying in a shelter. I just gave her a dollar. Do you suppose you could give her a little something?” They scowled and shook their heads. After a few heavy minutes, March said, “It's Christmas, you know.” “We give to charities,” one of the women answered as if that excuses them from helping others in need...
March went on in her note to say that a prosperous man in a brief case got on the bus and sat close by. “Excuse me,” March said, “the woman there is hungry.” She told him the story. He did nothing, and did not answer her. Soon he was talking to the man beside him, smiling, and they were jabbing each other knowingly with elbows and head nods. March tried again. A woman said, “OK,” and March felt hopeful. But the woman who had responded then ignored March and the hungry woman, got a Vogue out of her purse, and started to read...

The story in the note she wrote saddened me because it truly shows how many Americans feel towards those in need: with neglect (some with less than others; and of course not all Americans behave in such a manner).

A volunteer, then, has an opportunity to learn first hand through observation and interaction with a community of their culture: the rich cultural history, as well as the opportunities for growth. Instead of simply continuing to neglect the issues of communities that are less fortunate, we are thrown into the mix armed with our ideas and beliefs that we are going to change the world.

Arriving in country, and later into our sites, our awareness and development continue to grow. We begin to realize that changing the world might, just maybe, be too lofty of a goal.

The months pass, and so the volunteer becomes more well-versed with the local language… the volunteer adapts to the culture, learning the norms, taboos, meeting the important community members…before you know it half a year has passed and the volunteer starts wondering what has been accomplished and what will be accomplished in the next year and a half.

Even to this point, the volunteer has been undergoing tremendous changes, but likely has not yet realized the changes.

More and more time passes, and the volunteer has small victories here and there… and this month there is a big activity…that month training and vacation…

Before you know it, the two years are almost up. The volunteer reflects: what have I accomplished in the last two years?

Memories of projects, big and small, come to mind. More memories come to mind, of good times with friends/family on vacation and that trip to the game park.

Then the volunteer starts becoming reflective. It’s been two years and yet it seems like arriving in Kenya was “juzi juzi tu” (just the other day).

The volunteer realizes that the person who stepped off the airplane two years ago is long gone. ‘What happened to that person?’ you ask, well that person grew, changed, adapted. That person has grown into a new person that remains in Kenya for an additional year to be able to serve the community he has come to love and cherish.

The person that’s in the present has taken a lot more than anyone can realize. And now this third year is about giving back, as much as I am able as a ‘thank you’ to my community.