It’s not the virus, it’s us

The University of Nairobi joins the world in marking World Aids Day today. As part of the build-up to this event, they informed us, students, through email and noticeboards, of what would be happening during the day, sending us a detailed program of the events planned in Kenya Science Campus.

In emails intended precisely for Chiromo students, we were specifically exhorted to go to tents, set up at two locations in the campus, to learn more about the virus. This was a program that was to run through the week preceding this day.

Coming from a place which has been particularly hard hit by the virus, I have been party to many such programs. Since I was a young boy running around a small dusty town with a naughty face and a dangerous hand, I have known that HIV is one of the most problematic viruses in the world. I have known how it’s contracted. I have been aware that it is incurable. The means of avoiding it have been drummed into me year after year. And yet, even though I resolved at the end of each such session that I wouldn’t go again for another, I always found myself in them again and again, until recently.

It’s always the same thing. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. This we all know. Then, HIV is contracted through sharing body fluids, be it through sexual intercourse or sharing sharp objects, or whatever. This also, we all know. Then, HIV is incurable. Another common fact. The last, and most important part of this drill, is concerned with prevention. When I was young, there was that acronym, ABC. Abstain. Be faithful. Condom use.

Abstinence was the first line of defence. It was the beginning of the fight, the most sensible way to fight the virus. If you hadn’t started the business of mating, it was better if you stayed that way until you were married and had reason to. That was the soundest advice one would get. But, if you were already sexually active, married, all wasn’t lost. There was still a way around that, to be faithful to your one partner. This was another fool-proof method of keeping the virus out, unless it was already in, though other variants would then be kept out still. Then, if the first two didn’t apply to you, you were advised to use a condom each time you did the thing, and it was pointed out, quite bluntly, that this was the riskiest of the means, that it didn’t assure you of protection, that you still could contract the virus, and then you were told to use it at your own peril. Another reference was made to the first two before you were reluctantly assigned your precarious fate.

I wonder what has happened since then. Now, when you go to these tents, and they get to that point of prevention, they just tell you, ‘Make sure you use a condom every time you have sex.’ And that’s it. That’s the way to kill the virus. Don’t worry about whether you should have sex or not. Don’t worry about how many partners your partner has been with. Don’t worry about your heart. Don’t worry about others. Don’t worry about your character. Don’t worry about your dignity. Blast morality. We know you can’t say no to sex. So, if you feel like sleeping around, don’t fight the urge. Just make sure you have a packet of condoms tucked somewhere close. That will keep out the virus. You’ll be safe. In fact, this kind of sex is called ‘safe’ sex.

So why aren’t we making any gains in the fight against HIV? We have the means after all, don’t we? Use condoms, HIV will be eliminated. Yet we still have one of the highest prevalence rates in the world. We still bury our friends and relatives, saying boldly that that they died of malaria while whispering behind closed doors about the virus that took them. We still get scared when we see that red ribbon and see those letters written anywhere. We still lick foreign boots in an effort to obtain drugs we can’t afford for our sick people. We bandy around numbers and percentages, seeking to impress, not considering that the stories involved are very individual.

Who are we trying to fool? What made us become so loose? What brought us to this pass, where common sense is discarded in the search for pleasure, where hope in the young is lost and they are given blank slates to write what they don’t have a clue about? What happened to those traditional values, morality and decency, which we still mention when we talk of imperialism and neo-colonialism yet don’t think of when we talk of contraception and ‘protected’ sex? Why on earth are we so meek where we shouldn’t be, indifferent where we need to speak and bold where we need not be?

I didn’t go to any of the two tents in Chiromo, though I saw many go, and I passed by them many times. Today, I will not attend the activities marking this day. Why, you may ask, don’t I feel the need to exhibit my solidarity with the people who have the virus? And I will answer this way: until we stop lying to them, and the people who still stand to contract the virus, until we take a step back and engage in a rational discussion on condoms, and discard childish ridicule, until we are willing to think, I will risk being thought of as not being together with them.

Because I know that won’t be true. Because I have lost many friends and relatives to the virus. Because I have many friends and relatives, with the virus, who are living exceptionally productive lives. Because they are no less human than I am. And if I have a problem with any of them, it has nothing to do with their HIV status.

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