The continent of Africa had always scared me a little.
Like so many places in the world where the deadly problems of war, poverty and AIDS exist, my perception of these places was formed by much of what I read and saw in the media. But the stereotypes I had in my mind were not what I encountered when I arrived in Zambia for the first time in 2002. I’m sure they existed somewhere, but the good people I met were kind and generous and welcoming. Even with the deadly AIDS pandemic clearly taking its toll, the people I met and observed–persevered; despite all the hardships.
As I continued my travels through Lesotho, Mozambique and Ethiopia, I mostly felt safe and secure.
It’s not accurate to generalize about a place like Africa. There are more than 800 million people living in 54 countries, speaking 2,000 languages on a continent with rich and diverse histories and cultures. But even with this diversity, the photograph of AIDS in Africa is a familiar one.
While Africa may seem so far away, I think of people I have met there, people like myself and my family and friends. Kindred spirits I have come to know, with similar hopes and dreams for a better life.
“Our Ancestral home is in the Rift Valley, somewhere between Nairobi and The Red Sea. This is worth remembering: if it were not for Africa we would not be here at all. Africa is where we come from“. John Ryle
It must be understood, without any hint of heady romanticism, that Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, when I was most impressionable, was a continent of vitality, growth and boundless expectation. It got into your blood, your viscera, your heart.The bonds were not just durable, they were unbreakable. There was something intoxicating about an environment of such hope, anticipation, affection, energy, indomitability.
The Africa I knew was poor, but it wasn’t staggering under the weight of oppression, disease, and despair; it was absolutely certain that it could triumph over every exigency. There were countless health emergencies-polio, measles, malaria, malnutrition-but it never felt like Armageddon. In fact, life expectancy began to rise in the late 1960s, until the reversal induced by Structural Adjustment Programs on the one hand, and AIDS on the other.
And the people, the people everywhere, were so unbelievably kind; I had never encountered cultures so uniformly inclusive, gentle, decent, welcoming.
I was smitten for life.
You can understand, therefore, how painful it is to visit my beloved Africa under present day circumstances. It’s not just the ruinous economic and social decline, it’s the ravaging of the pandemic; it’s the way in which a communicable disease called AIDS has taken countries by the throat and reduced them to spectral caricatures of their former selves.
I have to say that the ongoing plight of Africa forces me to perpetual rage. It’s all so unnecessary, so crazy that hundreds of millions of people should be thus abandoned.
From Race Against Time, Stephen Lewis, United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.