In the opening line from 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa, author Stephanie Nolen illustrates a feeling many of us understand. “I looked at AIDS in Africa for a long time before I understood what I was seeing,” she writes. Nolen is an award-winning journalist who has spent the past several years as our eyes and ears on the AIDS pandemic in Africa. As the Africa correspondent for the Globe and Mail, Nolen has written many articles on the ruthless disease that involves people we easily ignore. “It targets subjects we least like to discuss—the drugs we inject, the sex we have, especially the sex with people we aren’t supposed to have sex with—and the interaction least open to honest discussion.”
Earlier this week, Nolen was the keynote speaker at HIV/AIDS: Stories From the Field, a fundraising event hosted by the Institute of Cultural Affairs. Nolen regaled the audience at St. Paul’s Bloor Street Church with tales for her new book that tells the stories of 28 people, one for each million living with HIV/AIDS in Africa. Nolen spoke passionately about the pandemic that most of the world has greatly ignored. “The G8 commitment to the pandemic is very big at the press conference and completely hollow when it comes to writing the cheque,” she said. She specifically called out Canada as being particularly disappointing aid provider. “Canada is the only country to fail to commit the minimum .07% of GDP to aid in Africa,” she said. “As if .07% is real aid anyway.”
Nolen’s most effective point of her speech was when she relayed a message from one of her African colleagues. Before she left for Canada, she asked him what he would say to a group of concerned Canadians. “Actually, we don’t need your help,” replied the Malawian AIDS activist. “We need you to get out of the way. Just stop making it worse.” Nolen went on to describe the counterproductive ways in which aid efforts have been more hindrance than helping hand. “My country is desperately working to develop an agricultural sector,” he said. “[But] your country subsidizes farmers and dumps all your surplus agricultural product in my country.”
Nolen explained that if African farmers started growing carnations or avocados or other high value products to export, the import restrictions implemented by the Canadian government would prevents African agricultural sustainability. “[G8] countries dump their excess agricultural product in developing countries despite record harvest which depresses the prices,” she said.
Nolen’s speech was loaded with examples of misguided relief efforts. Prior to referencing Shopper’s Drug Mart’s plan to recruit South African pharmacists when that country is in desperate need of pharmacists, Nolen accused the International Monetary Fund (in which Canada is a board member) for handicapping the HIV/AIDS support system. “In Kenya, there is a desperate need for nurses,” she said. “There are thousands of unemployed nurses and they can’t be hired because the IMF puts a cap on how many public sector jobs there are […] and how many people they’re allowed to hire. So they have all these HIV clinics that are unstaffed and all of these out of work nurses, and the IMF won’t let them work.”
Nolen’s defining message is that concerned individuals, groups and governments need to rethink the ways in which we help. Education and sensitivity must dominate future AIDS relief movements and our entire attitude towards the pandemic must be revamped. In her own words, AIDS must now be understood as “not an event or a series of them; it’s a mirror held up to the cultures and societies we build.”
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