December 1, 2009

South Africa, World AIDS Day, Music, and More

Bradley just arrived back from South Africa and reflects on World AIDS Day, US complacency, and musical responses to HIV.

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Emergency vs. Complacency

After nearly a month in South Africa I have finally made it back to the states. How ironic my first blog since leaving falls on World AIDS Day. By far, the impact of HIV and AIDS on South Africa has been greater than any other country on earth. Each time I return to South Africa the sobering reality of the nation’s AIDS crisis hits me full force.

With the average life expectancy for the nation actively going down, a government that for years has been in a state of AIDS denialism, and a country that is quite literally running out of ground to burry people in, the impact is surreal and overwhelming.

In the states, on the other hand, a national mentality has emerged that treats HIV more as a chronic disease instead of a terminal one. While a cure doesn’t exist as of yet, our medical system and educational programs tell us that catching it early enough and with the right medicines, you don’t have to die from HIV.

In the words of Bill Clinton “AIDS is no longer a death sentence for those who can get the medicines”. The key words being ‘for those who can get the medicines’.  Sadly, there are a lot of people in the world who simply don’t have access to medicines.  At times, the discussion of HIV and AIDS in the U.S. seems to have lost its urgency.

This apparent complacency, quite frankly, scares me!

University Condom Machines

In the U.S. some of our universities, not to mention the majority of our high schools, still debate whether or not condoms should be made readily accessible in residence halls.  This is at the college level?!!

A colleague at a Missouri state university was sharing with me how the topic of putting condom machines in a residence hall last year sparked a heated debate between administrators, students, and public health officials. Yet, in South Africa, the question of providing condoms in residence halls isn’t a question at all. In fact, condom dispensers, like the one pictured above, can be found throughout university campuses, in the offices of many faculty and administrators, as well as public restrooms throughout the country.

University politics aside, as South Africa is keenly aware of, the reality is that condoms alone do not solve HIV and AIDS.  Even today, in countries across the world (including the US), there is still a stigma when it comes to AIDS. Throughout all of our education, many people still don’t know how HIV is contracted.  Assumptions about lifestyles, drug use, and sexual promiscuity still haunt many living with HIV/AIDS.

Tackling HIV/AIDS takes a unified multi-faceted effort. For all of the work the world has done there is still a long way to go.

Musical Responses

Having said all of that the world’s response to HIV/AIDS has been diverse. In addition to the initial responses of medical care and education, a large artistic response to HIV/AIDS has grown over the years.  In fact, a good friend of mine is living in Trinidad right now on a Fulbright grant studying the country’s AIDS choirs and other musical responses to the pandemic.

Music and Art has been used as a way to not only educate others but also to serve as a coping mechanism for those impacted by the disease.  Two musical responses that I am fond of and that have impacted me personally include Sweet Honey in the Rock’s song “Patchwork Quilt” (You can find it on itunes) and a documentary called “We Are Together” about the Agape Children’s Choir in South Africa (you can find it on Amazon).

Time’s Up

Al Gore said “The heart of the security agenda is protecting lives- and we now know that the number of people who will die of AIDS in the first decade of the 21st century will rival the number that died in all the wards in all the decades of the 20th century”.  In one month’s time that first decade is up. We have come a long way but there is still so much to do.