The Common Good
August 2007

Bearing Witness

by Kimberly Burge | August 2007

A journalist's portrait of a pandemic.

Wearing a fierce gaze and his "HIV POSITIVE" faded red T-shirt, Winstone Zulu came right out and asked Toronto's Globe and Mail Africa correspondent Stephanie Nolen the question. "What are our lives worth?"

His five words touched on the central themes—economic, political, philosophical, theological—that must be considered in any examination of the AIDS crisis in Africa, and the response from the rest of the world it has and has not generated.

Nolen couldn't answer him and avoided his gaze by scribbling in her notebook. Zulu may as well have been asking on behalf of the 28 people profiled in Nolen's book, 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa, or for the 28 million people in sub-Saharan Africa estimated to be infected with HIV. Each has every right to expect an answer to that question from a world that has turned its back for too long.

In 28, Nolen approaches the difficult questions by telling the stories of an array of people affected by AIDS. There's Tigist, an Ethiopian teenager who has been raising her younger brother Yohannes on her own since their mother died of AIDS. She paints her toenails delphinium blue, lies awake at night worrying about money for school fees and more lentils, and tries to avoid the men approaching her for sex while promising rent money. Pontiano Kaleebu works as a virus researcher in Entebbe, Uganda, searching for an AIDS vaccine. On a good day, when he's feeling optimistic, he says it's at least another 10 years away. And there's Botswana's Miss HIV Stigma Free 2005, Cynthia Leshomo, photographed with one hand on her hip and the other draped down her thigh in the manner of beauty queens everywhere. Their stories, Zulu's story, and 24 more make the issue much more personal and much less theoretical.

The personal scope of the disease was how Nolen began to realize the impact of AIDS on the continent during a 2002 trip to Malawi. One in seven adults in Malawi is infected with HIV. That's the number on paper. In the village of Nkothakota, it meant hundreds of people, either sick themselves, caring for the sick, or taking in orphaned children. It meant people dying three to a bed in hospitals. The experience shifted Nolen's way of reporting on the continent.

In 2003, Nolen convinced her editors to make AIDS in Africa her sole beat for the paper, saying that the newspaper was missing the main story. It took some persuasion on her part. "There's a saying with newspapers, 'If it bleeds, it leads,'" Nolen said during an interview in Washington, D.C. In other words, gory car crashes with broken glass and the blood-smeared sidewalks after a shooting make the front page. But the lingering deaths of hundreds of thousands of people half a world away? Not so much.

"When it comes to Africa, everyone wants to do charity. No one wants to do social justice," Nolen says.

Nolen is animated, straightforward, and often quite funny when discussing these matters. She wears blue jeans with embroidered flowers covering one leg, made by HIV-positive women in Khayelitsha, a township outside Cape Town, South Africa. And she is well aware that her book is in many ways a difficult sell. Her publisher, in fact, asked her to make the case for telling these stories.

"My American publisher called me up when I was just finishing the introduction and said, 'You have to write a couple of paragraphs about why Americans should care about this.' I said 'Okay, I'll do that.' And then I stared at the computer screen for the whole day.

"I called him back and said, 'Here's the thing: You actually have no reason to care about this. These countries could disappear tomorrow and it would mean nothing. They are politically and economically marginal, so marginal that it doesn't matter.' And he said, 'No, that can't be true.' And I said, 'Tell me what Lesotho means in your life. Could you find it on a map? No. It means nothing for your life on a daily basis.'"

Nolen hopes to make Americans care by telling these stories, by countering the idea that "those people" are somehow different and thus affected differently by disease and death. "They are every bit as terrified of dying of a preventable disease as we would be. Finding out you have HIV in Lusaka feels exactly like finding out you have HIV in Washington."

Two of the book's most powerful chapters are also the shortest. Nolen met Mfanimpela Thlabatse twice, once when his wife was dying, and a year and a half later, as he lay dying. In the meantime, he'd also lost both of their children, giving them paupers' burials because he had no money left after his wife's funeral. At 34, he was just a few months older than Nolen. "And he had outlived his entire family," she writes.

And then there's Mpho, who is shown in a framed photograph held by her grandmother. She's wearing a baseball hat with the red AIDS ribbon emblazoned upon it. Nolen got to know 10-year-old Mpho when she moved to Johannesburg. "She was going to take trips, to get famous. She was wiry and feisty and she had inherited her grandmother's scrappy survival instinct," Nolen writes.

Mpho died at age 12, buried on top of her mother's reopened grave because the cemetery had run out of space.

"Their stories haunt me," Nolen says, her voice growing quiet for the first time during the interview. She wants these voices heard. She wants to personalize the 28 million people who are fighting the disease, and fighting for their families, communities, and lives.

"I get to meet people like this all the time. I get to have lunch with them. I want to invite others to have lunch with them, too, and find out who they are and what they're like. And then let's have the conversation about what we value and who matters and who doesn't matter."

Kimberly Burge is senior writer/editor at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.

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