Monday, January 16, 2006

May 18th 2003

Hi Everyone. I am doing fine. I want to talk a little bit about the HIV epidemic here in Lesotho. First of all I think it should be called something more than an epidemic. Maybe we could call it a plague or catastrophe. I say this because it is out of control and does not seem to be going to be in control for a long time. Some of the reasons are that people just don’t believe in it. There are others that just don’t care. Also when I say this I mean it in a way I don’t even understand but that this culture encourages the transmission.

First the facts as stated by UNAID. In the year two thousand an estimated thirty-one percent of the people in Lesotho were infected with HIV. Also a projected growth rate if left untreated is about seven percent a year. What does that mean today in the middle of two thousand and three? It means maybe about half of the people here have it. I know this sounds outrageous. It sounds ridiculous. I feel like it is true.

I recently talked to a doctor. He said that at the hospital in the capital city that all the people that come in that are pregnant are now automatically tested. The rate of women being HIV positive is right at fifty percent. This also means a high rate of children are being born positive. I also have recently talked to a lab technician at a hospital. The story is that a lot of people are coming in sick. They are then often referred to be tested. I remind you that such a population is going to have a higher HIV rate than people that are not sick going to the hospital but that eighty percent of the people coming into that hospital are HIV positive. To me that is the kind of news that really is infuriating.

I know this culture here is a kind of benign culture. I don’t have to tell you what it would be like in a proactive land like America if half of the people had a potential terminal disease. We all know that there would be some serious government money being spent as well a numerous activist trying to promote a better understanding. Here it is not so. In fact one would think that I would be surrounded by HIV prevention campaigns. I am not.

About a year has gone by since I joined the Peace Corps. I have been told repeatedly that I am not too just go out and start projects. For the most part this is because after I leave they will fall apart. So I usually just sit around waiting for someone to come ask me to help. Everyone here for the most part knows that any white person here is probably Peace Corps and they know we help. Be it that I am very visible I figure people would be pounding down my door to help. They aren’t. But since a year has gone by and I went to the local office that deals with HIV and volunteered my services and nothing came of it I decided to go out on my own and do something.

I of course have a great venue for such work. I am assigned to a school and if I get the principle’s support then I instantly have about seventy students that are a captive audience. I recently organized an HIV assembly. I managed to present a short film about people being HIV positive. Two guest speakers were presenting. Both openly admitted that they are HIV positive. Now in a country where about half of the people in between the ages 15-50 are also positive (the age range of students at my school) one would think that it would be no big surprise. They were. They even openly challenged these to brave men that were speaking to them claiming that they were not.

Some things that make it worse here are the fact that a significant percentage of the people that live here in Lesotho are migrant laborers. They have wives in Lesotho and girlfriends or prostitutes in South Africa. When they are working the wives left in Lesotho also have side lovers. In fact having multiple partners here is common when married and expected when not. It is not uncommon to find one guy that claims he has three to seven girlfriends that he is actively with. One guy in particular who is HIV positive that I know of has twelve steady girlfriends that he sees on a regular basis. That type of behavior incubates the spread of HIV and again is infuriating.

To make it worse there are indeed a small group of people that have been tested positive and now have set out purposely to spread the virus. In such an environment as Lesotho it is a very easy thing to do. Personally I am not exactly sure what to say to such people but I do not condone such behavior.

Now having said this I feel like the main problem for the spread is not the highly active sex lives. I mean that is yes the way it is spread but personally I feel the problem is much deeper than that. I think it is a cultural thing in which people generally are not proactive. The parents here for one do not ever talk to the kids about sex. In fact not only can it be said that they are not proactive but also they are the opposite. They only for a large part act when something is staring them down in the face. HIV is hidden though and so as long as they don’t see it they don’t want to deal with it. The saying in America don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today does not apply here. In fact much more applicable and something I have actually heard is don’t do today what you can put off till tomorrow and tomorrow never comes. So as you can understand that many people here just don’t want to deal with things unless they absolutely have too.

Much of the country is indeed civilized. For instance where I live there are telephones, electricity, cars, and a paved road but it is still very much third world. But back in the villages away from the camptown it is a very different story. It is a way of life that is archaic I am not even sure if it is more advanced than how the Native Americans lived before Columbus crossed the ocean. One volunteer that lives deep in the mountains recently told me, “You live in the third world but I live in a museum”. We laughed but in a very serious way he is right. Such a primitive type of society indeed is very susceptible to such things as HIV.

I would really like to make a difference and think that I might make a very minute one while I am here. I am doing work when I talk to people and even have started a catchy little phrase of, “lerato, le hloka dicondoms” which I say a lot especially as a good bye in the taxis. It means, “having sex means using condoms” in a nice unobtrusive way. Truthfully though I feel like unless some outside agency does something to save these people lives there is going to be some big problems. I do know that quite of a bit if not most or basically all of the HIV prevention programs are funded and run by outside organizations but they still seem to be too little to late for many. Peace and love, jeff


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