noone ever told us we were gonna be left alone

We are just about two weeks from the last month of the year and I don’t know how we came to be here so quickly, so without resolution and so completely surrounded by weariness.

It has been a long year.

I do not remember if I brought disillusionment with me into 2012 or if it’s something I’ve picked up as we stumbled through the year.

My recollections of the past ten months are tinged with bitterness, some triumph; but mostly, with incomprehension.

January was a whole other country, a whole other person.

I know we’re all tired at this time of the year. I know it gets harder and harder to find a bit of magic in the every day when misery, heartache and wretchedness confronts you at every corner.

This weekend, I swore to myself, would be work-free. I would spend it watching tennis, films; have a Homeland marathon; read. I was house/dog sitting for a friend- I could pretend to be on holiday already; not just a six minute stroll from my own bed.

The doorbell rang this morning and an emaciated man begged me to let him work on the lawn so he could afford to eat.

It gets harder and harder to say no, to steel yourself to empathy; to despair.

I ploughed through my work to-do list this afternoon.

It has been a year of heartbreak.

Friends have lost homes, families, parents, lives and every day there is a knot of dread that refuses to unclench at what else will break today, where else the tears are shed and for whom the bells will toll.

There is violence everywhere I look.

I speak of human rights and bodily integrities and autonomies and throw around terms of legalese, aid-speak garble that is supposedly important to how our health systems work, the world’s priorities, and, bottom line, whether women and young people die or whether they live.

I speak and challenge and debate and question and advocate and write and critique and fly across the world, and when it comes down to it- I cross my fingers and hope and plead and hope and plead that somehow, someone, somewhere will just give a shite about all the numbers and statistics and arguments that is laid out in front of them.

But when reality goes beyond a piece a paper, we sit down in community spaces and fill it up with words and figures and facts and graphs and people tell us to ‘speak their language’ because we are incomprehensible. Un-understandable. It pierces me with half parts irony and half parts hysteria because the words and figure and facts and graphs are nothing but what people live every single day.

And we say ‘everyday realities’ and nobody knows what we’re saying. Because we never ask ‘whose everyday realities?’, never step back and question ‘what does that even mean?’. Because if we were to, we would have to question everything. In the end, when we say ‘everyday realities’ we mean the lives of others.

November is a filled with words. And I read them, jaded.

On Friday, I tweeted: ‘Alternate career choices. Go.’

Friends told me (half jokingly, I’m sure) to teach English, teach Dev/Aid related things at University, bake, become a midwife {definitely a joke}. And I marvelled at all the things people think {however facetiously} I could be- things I once thought I could do.

It would be better for my sanity, my health, my social life and my sense of self to be a professional dog-walker, book recommender, speech writer, a chef at an intimate invite-only restaurant- anything but this faith-destroying work that takes everything I believe in and crushes it every single day and flings it right back at me; mocking me to pick it up, pick it up and come back for more in the next few hours because none of this sleeps, none of it ever takes a break, and the joke’s on you if you ever thought you could.

It would be better. I would be happier.

But, I’m not sure how far I can run without wanting and wishing and waiting to be yanked right back into it all.

It is almost December and I cannot remember much of January.

Only that I believed. And I would be miserable if I were not here.




Tinderbox: a pyre of women


NPR published an article and an interview with Craig Timberg; the author of ‘Tinderbox: How the West sparked the AIDS epidemic and how the world can finally overcome it’.

The piece is based in the author’s analysis of the HIV/AIDS epidemic (and the subject of his book), and it’s current state. Timberg shares some of the research and data around the beginnings of the virus, the spread to the ‘West’, and opines on prevention programmes. The article sums up the main points that he brings up over the course of the interview.

The opening quote for the article, “In vaginal sex, you can have sex with hundreds of people and not transmit [HIV], it turns out,” made me raise an eyebrow.

Understandably, I think.

All current research (as far as I’m aware) counts women’s physiology as one of the main reasons for why women are more susceptible to the virus, [TL;DR? Just CTRL+F ‘Biology’] which directly contradicts what Timberg claims in the interview.

I haven’t read the book, but going by the tone of the article and his interview; he seems to overlook several key points in his analysis of the epidemic. He doesn’t even mention something central to the current HIV/AIDS situation: women.

The feminisation of HIV/AIDS is one of the most concerning issues in the fight against HIV/AIDS. ‘According to WHOAIDS, the HIV/AIDS infection rate is constantly on the rise in women. In Africa, women represent 59% of adults living with the AIDS virus and three quarters of HIV positive women live in Sub-Saharan Africa. On a worldwide scale, 17.3 million women aged 15 years or more live with HIV, making up 48% of the world’s total. In Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, there is a growing number of women and girls living with HIV/AIDS’ [source]. Obviously all of this is further exacerbated by the existing gender disparity, the prevalence of violence against women, the lack of negotiating spaces, early marriage, and female genital mutilation; amongst others. The burden of dealing with the AIDS epidemic also falls on women- supporting families that’ve lost the main bread-winner to the virus, dealing with vertical transmission (mother to child),  as well as the stigma and discrimination that specifically targets women.

So I do not understand an entire interview that does not even mention how 50% of those living with HIV are women. That makes no sense to me.

In addition, I have grave objections to consistently pushing male circumcision as a magic solution to the epidemic.

He says, “The essential fact is that a man’s foreskin is a different kind of tissue than the other parts of his penis. It’s a little softer, it’s a little thinner and it’s more easily penetrated by the virus. And so a man who doesn’t have a foreskin is much less likely -70% or so less likely- to get HIV, and crucially; the man who can’t get HIV can’t give it to anyone else, can’t give it to anyone else, can’t give it to anyone else. There’s a chain of consequence when you block one infection. ”

Anyone who has read enough around male circumcision and HIV transmission, knows much; much better than to say things like ‘the man who can’t get HIV’ when talking about circumcision. That’s an idea that must not be propagated. It sounds as though I’m nitpicking, but if you listen to his repetition of the ‘can’t give it’- that’s underscoring an incredibly flawed idea. Circumcision does not stop the spread of the infection, it just lowers the possibility of infection.

While initial studies have shown a decrease in transmission, it is something that has (on the ground) shown questionable behavioural issues. After circumcision, there were reports of men refusing to use condoms because they believed that circumcision  would protect them from infection. Most importantly, the focus remains on men alone-it is about preventing the spread of infection in men. Male circumcision programmes look at reducing female to male transmissions more so than others (see the previous link)- and transmission of female to male infection is already considered less likely than male to male or male to female transmission.

These programmes do not, in any way, specifically address the needs of women and girls.- it does not give them the control over their own health/safety or the answers to an epidemic that they are physiological, culturally, and socially more vulnerable to.

In fact, all the examples he uses or references are specific to men. Even an evocative image of a radio advert that utilises a young girl to beseech/guilt her father into coming home- is about her father. It is not about that little girl, her sister, or her mother.

I’m also uncomfortable with how Timberg consistently uses incredibly disempowering imagery and language to describe socio-cultural interactions. I chafe at his use of the word prostitutes- he means sex workers, specifically in the context that he’s addressing.

This is especially true when speaking of the African context- he attempts to explain the polygamous practices, but does not delve into the socio-economic implications. He alludes to young women who have older partners who pay for their education, for example. This form of transactional sex is beyond just sex or about gifts- it is about the very particular issues of a power struggle, of access, and of a patriarchal society. This complete lack of contextual understanding of how it drives the epidemic, and specifically so for women, is shocking. I shudder to imagine how he conveys these sensitive ideas in his book, if he cannot adequately capture this in his spoken interview.

Throwing around phrases such as ‘Stay home, stay safe’ echoes a morality framework that has been proved ineffective and inefficient. While he briefly mentions the ‘abstinence based’ policies of the US government (still continuing, by the way. It did not shift under the Obama administration) and supports an open approach to sex and sexuality; again his comments are very, very specific to men.

There are a number of other issues in his interview and in that particular accompanying article; but I was also surprised that he mentioned funding and HIV/AIDS programming that is driven by the West; but did not even breathe a word about the current funding crisis, the cancellation of Round 11 (that had a particular impact on Africa), or even mention treatment and access to treatment.

I’m  a little curious to see whether he mentions the forced sterilisation and coerced contraceptive use programmes targeted at positive women as he analyses some of the disastrous HIV prevention campaigns. A little curious, but not enough to make myself read his book. Especially when he completely ignores 50% of the very people he is speaking about. The very people that Kofi Annan said, ‘The face of HIV/AIDS is a woman’s face’ about.


observations, travel stories

I like travelling by myself, exploring places and people at my own pace; stopping when I want to and meandering as the wind feels.

I always find it interesting then, to talk to other travellers in hostels and hotels, observe them and the ways in which they interact and chafe and rub up against personalities and tempers. The way they take up spaces in common areas, the way they speak to people around them, or to each other.

My toes are covered in sand, there’s Bob Marley on the radio, pancakes for breakfast, and a good book by my side. A rather loud American woman is pontificating on the finer points of the Arabic Language and Arabic Culture.

I am hard pressed not to roll my eyes at the inaccuracies.

It’s a familiar scene. I often find myself in spaces with other ‘travellers’ or ‘expats’ who wax on about cultures, languages, spaces; comparing and contrasting, holding it up and finding it wanting. I wonder if I do that too- compare two completely divergent cultures and find one wanting. Find a culture wanting (ridiculously)- rather than realising that the one wanting is me.

Swopping stories with the people sharing your table follows a simple arc of ‘Hi, how’s it going? Up to much today?’ before it devolves into an expected travel history of where from and where to.

A simple arc, but nonetheless interesting and exciting to follow. Familiar cities and old haunts, countries you dream of and yearn for, tips and must-dos carelessly dropped into conversations as tea is poured and fruit is devoured.

I grabbed a t-shirt from the depths of my backpack, not bothering to read it; I meander over to the bar. The bar keep reads it, loud and clear, ‘The Right to Live, the Right to Safe Abortion’. He raises an eyebrow, ‘Abortion is a crime’.

I make sure to check my t-shirts for unthinkingly offending peoples’ sensibilities.

I grapple with what that means: are my beliefs on holiday too, or is it OK that I’m too tired to deal with this on my holiday? Or am I selling out, betraying the things I believe in by not engaging in a dialogue?

I don’t know. But I did put away my ‘Sex Work is Work’ t-shirt.

My sunglasses, a grab from a UNFPA campaign, read ‘CONDOMIZE!’ on one particularly bright leg.

I sit at the bar, sipping my Bitter Lemon, and one of the friendly staff members reads it out and asks, ‘Condomize? What does that mean?’.

‘It means that we should always practice safe sex- use condoms to protect ourselves and our partners’.

‘I don’t know how to do that. I’d like to learn’.

I’m unsure if offering to show him sounds like a come on, or if it sounds patronising… but I err on the side of my principles and offer to do a demo if he’d like.

He giggles and nods.

I walked down through the village yesterday- a tiny village built on sand and a stone’s throw from the beach; supported by (and hidden behind) the huge, slightly grandiose hotels on the beachfront. Half of them weren’t finished yet, the stones a bit bare without the roof or thatched in places where the stones left gaping holes.

I didn’t want to take a photo and end up capturing lives I shouldn’t be privy to.

A woman sang her baby to sleep in the courtyard, her house in darkness as the sun set.

We stopped by the street vendor grilling pieces of chicken. Seeing by the glow of a lamp, we devoured our chappati wrapped chicken and licked our fingers clean. I could hear the waves crashing in the distance.

A child poured water over my hands so I could wash them clean of chicken-chappati-seaair.

I was reminded of India.

I woke up to the sound of thunder.

Sitting at the breakfast bar with the rain pouring down around me; lighting in the sky, I felt like the world was ending.

It was OK that I was in a sarong with sand in my hair.