"For all of the frustrations I have had with the HIV virus, I have had many amazing experiences in Tanzania. The people of this country are incredible. They love to welcome me into their homes, and share what little they have with me. I have seen more generosity in this nation than I have seen in my entire lifetime." - Ryan Christen, Class of 2006
January 23: So I am entering my third week here in Tanzania. Whew, life is very different here than any place I have ever been. The work that I have been doing has been really intense and it has made me appreciate certain things in my own life. Last week I was sent to a small village called Njambe, where I went out into the field to interview HIV/AIDS orphans. It was challenging for me, because I am naturally very talkative and open, and was told almost immediately by the priest who was escorting me around that I could not mention HIV. As I struggled to understand why the subject is such taboo in Africa, of all places, I realized that the stigma behind the virus is still very much in existence here.
The doctors in the villages tell patients that they are suffering from TB instead of HIV. They believe that by doing this they will ensure that the patients remain hopeful. There is a belief here that if someone knows they have HIV, they will give up on life. As a result, people are not told the truth about their condition. The priest, Father Walter, told me that the patients are then told that the cure for TB is to not have sex. This was by far one of the most aggravating things I have ever heard. It is beyond frustrating to be surrounded by all of these orphans, none of whom have been tested, and to see all of the death, and to know that people are still in such denial. It is still believed in many of these villages that if you have HIV then you are a prostitute. All the while I kept thinking of these children, what are they going to do? I saw many homes where the only remaining guardian is a grandmother, in some cases, caring for seven or eight grandchildren. All of her original children have died. When I asked Father Walter why the children are not tested, he told me that it is because they were born before their parents got sick. This raised an alarm to me, so I asked him how long the virus can remain dormant in someone's system. He told me that they all know that an individual can have the virus for four years, but that after that, they get sick.
It is defeating to be dealing with such a lack of education. The priests are uninformed, and they still treat the virus as if it is a sin. They are not even aware that people can live with HIV for a VERY long time without showing symptoms. I can't help but wonder how many more people will have to die before they are forced to talk about it. It also makes me throw any statistic about the percentage of people living with HIV in Tanzania out the window, because I have heard from many people's mouths that they do not get tested.
Aside from being extremely frustrated, I have been enjoying myself. My host family in Dar es Salaam is very friendly, part of me wishes that I wasn't sent away so often because I enjoy being in their home so much. It has become comfortable to me. It is also impossible to go anywhere in Tanzania without eating A LOT. This proves to be a problem for me because I seem to constantly be getting sick from the food. But aside from that, everything is going well. This whole experience has made me realize that you cannot truly understand social justice until you travel and see the conditions of people who truly are suffering.
February 3: Well I just got back into town again. This week I spent most of my time in the city of Arusha. It is farther north than Dar, and I was sent to interview farmers in the surrounding villages. Overall I had a really great time. The subject matter this time around was crops, not orphans, so somehow I found it a little more cheerful. But no less frustrating. Some of the projects that the NGO's take on just completely amaze me. CRS is working on a project with these villages, where they give out seed for a drought-resistant crop (pigeon peas), and then organize the farmers into groups so that they can work directly with export traders. Without having the direct connection, the farmers have to sell to middlemen who come to the village. The problem with this is that the middlemen buy the harvests at a very cheap price, then turn around and sell them to the traders at a much higher price. Ultimately, the farmer is losing in this situation. The reason that the farmers need to be in groups, is that there needs to be a certain amount of harvest to grab the interest of the traders. They don't have the time to go to each individual village, and meet with each individual farmer. Thus, the groups were formed.
However, the farmers do not trust each other, so they never tell each other the truth about how much harvest they have. The seed itself has grown quite well (even through the worst drought season Tanzania has seen in years), but now the farmers have combined it with the local seed, so the harvest has turned into a hybrid of the two. When the people from the Diocese come to collect the number of bags that the farmers have, in order to tell the traders how many trucks to send-things get sticky. For one thing, the first farmer will tell the priest he has seven bags. By the time the priest gets to the fifth farmer, the first farmer has sold five of his seven to a middleman. By the time the priest gets to the tenth, the first farmer has nothing left, and the fifth has sold half of his harvest. Ultimately, by the time the priest has gathered all of the information, there is no harvest left to sell, and the trader is sending four giant trucks to the village to collect-nothing. The middlemen are making a huge profit, and the farmers are losing money.
So this is the project I am sent in to find a success story about. Great. I get there, and the first thing the farmers do is ask me for more seed, soda, sandwiches, and tools. I'm thinking "well, I actually am just here to listen to how great this project is working out for you, I don't actually have anything to give out myself".
So during the interview, I finally reach the point where I find myself asking "is there anything you think you are benefiting out of this project?". The farmers tell me no, despite the fact that only three minutes before they told me that the new seed sells at 200 more shillings per bag than the old seed did. They don't trust the traders, because the traders don't want to pay in cash. The traders don't want to send trucks full of cash into the villages, so they want to pay the farmers through their bank accounts. The farmers don't trust bank accounts. And so on...
Finally I find myself asking them what they think would make the process work. They explain that they would gladly operate with the traders, as long as the traders would agree to opening an office in town. I try to explain that the office in town, would ultimately replace the middlemen, because if they did that in one town, they would do it in all, which would cost them money, which would lower the price they would pay for the seed...
All in all, that is how I spent the past week, conducting interviews that sent my head spinning into circles. I ended with far more questions than answers, but I figure that is what this experience is all about.
February 17: I have spent the past week here in the city. Every morning I go to PASADA, which is a very successful HIV/AIDS clinic that provides many services to the public here. My assignment is to make a brochure for them, as they are very busy and have not had the time or resources available for this kind of activity. As a result, I have interviewed the heads of each of the seven different departments, as well as the head representative, and several clients. I have learned a lot during this time. I have learned that this disease is killing people at a rate much higher than what I had expected. I have learned that the value of another persons life is not very high in this country. I have seen prostitutes and men with many wives, come to gather their ARV medication, and then return to their lives with their secret.
Cause that's what HIV is here in Tanzania. It's always somebody's secret, and nobody's problem. When patients come to PASADA, they receive counseling in order to get used to the IDEA of testing. Then they decide whether or not they want to test. This process can take a long time. The general idea of the people here, is that they would rather not know, then find out. If they are positive, what will they do? So they continue their lives, without knowing, without caring whether or not they are spreading it around. At PASADA, they receive counseling and information about the disease, and they are given the choice to test. If they want to receive any medical treatment, they have to be tested.
So then once people are tested, there is then the problem of getting them to return for the results. Then once they get the results, there is the problem of getting them to return for treatment. Out of those who return for treatment, there is the problem of getting them to understand that when they have sex, they are spreading the disease. Many many many people in Tanzania, believe that it is common for one member of a couple to be infected, but for the other not. Now the problem at PASADA is that there are so many patients, they can't see them all. They see an average of 200 per day. I have talked to community members who are actually mad at PASADA for not having more services available. They think that because PASADA gets a lot of funding, they should have unlimited resources. But what I don't understand, is how they aren't realizing that the BIGGER problem, the one that has made the space for PASADA to be there in the first place, is tackling the disease on a community level. PASADA is one organization, it will not cure AIDS. It is there to provide services. The people do not want to take responsibility themselves here, and it is really frustrating.
The whole mentality is what is the most aggravating. It is common here for men to share condoms. It is common for men to have girlfriends on the side, and for women to be blamed when a man is infected. It is common for a child to be born infected. It is common for no one to test that child, and when they are tested, it is common for them to be left to fend for themselves at the ages of five or six when their parents die. It is common for grandmothers to be left to care for eight or nine grandchildren after all five of her children have died. It is also common for that grandmother to run out of money, and turn to prostitution in order to care for those children. Which, in this country, inevitably turns to HIV infection. It is expected that if a man buys you a drink, you will have sex with him. If you deny, he will tell the neighbors, who will say to you "go and pay him".
All of these things happen, and at the time that all of this is going on, people seem to be so accustomed to the disease itself, that they don't really care about it. My experience has been that it is just a part of life here. That if I'm going to die from HIV, then I'm going to take you down with me. So how about if we both just agree not to find out, and then we won't know, and when we start to get sick, we will tell people we are dying of TB. This is life in Tanzania.
But then you see the little faces of the children in the clinic. You see the lesions covering their limbs, that are thin and tiny, and look like they could break with each small gesture. What would the world look like to those who are born with the one thing that everyone fears? To know that you represent HIV. You are the face of AIDS. You are the children, you were born with it, you will die from it, that is your entire existence. What would it feel like to be unwanted by a community, for nothing, other than the fact that you were born?
As I write this, I realize that I could tell you how much I have changed, how much I have grown, but at the moment, my individual personality seems irrelevant to what I have faced. This world has problems far bigger than me trying to find myself in a foreign land, or figuring out what to do with my life. I think of that bright-eyed blonde girl who left Seattle a couple months ago, and I know that I knew her, but I don't know where she has gone. And I don't particularly care.
HIV is bigger than me. It is bigger than the children. It is killing this community. People are in denial. People are refusing to accept that their behavior is causing this. This disease might be the most intelligent organism in the world. It spreads itself in the one guaranteed behavior of all people.
It is so easy to sit in a classroom and think you know the answers. To think that you can fix this. But then you get here. You sit across from a woman in the last stages of HIV. A woman who is only thirty two, but will be dead within two weeks. You see her bedsores, and hear her tiny voice. You see the shell of what was once a healthy person. You want to run to her, to pick her up, to fix it, to scream, to yell, to cry, but instead you sit in silence.
Sometimes silence is the only comfort. Sometimes you can't touch her, because you find yourself suddenly very aware of the hundreds of mosquito bites covering your hands and arms. You find yourself embarrassed and ashamed that you are even thinking this, but that you know there is a slight possibility of infection, if one of the mosquito bites that you scratched leaves an open wound....And then you realize that you have taken her shame. Taken the only thing she is left clinging to. So in the end, you remain strong in her presence, you smile, you are strong for her. Because it is at this moment that you realize, that the only gift you can give her, is her pride. She should be proud, she did nothing wrong, she did what everyone else does. So you remain solid for her, and then at night when you go home, you think of her, and if she will remember you tomorrow. Because suddenly you realize, that you will never forget her...
February 24: For all of the frustrations I have had with the HIV virus, I have had many amazing experiences in Tanzania. The people of this country are incredible. They love to welcome me into their homes, and share what little they have with me. I have seen more generosity in this nation than I have seen in my entire lifetime. The other day I met a woman at a bridal shower, who began telling me her life story. She told me about her life in the village, and what challenges she faced when she came to the city to begin a life with her husband. I listened to her story, and during it, she held my hand. People hold a hand here, that's what they do. Even men are seen holding hands; it is a sign of friendship. I love that. My hands seemed small and inexperienced compared to hers. Being raised in a country where I don't have to use them very much, mine are the kind you would imagine best used for piano playing. This is what my piano teachers have always told me. I have never had to use them for anything too terribly uncomfortable, never had to really "work" with them. But her thickly colored hands told a much different story.
Her hands are the kind of strong that can only come from years of work, and her face had smile lines that were thick and deep across her cheeks. As she talked, that smile that is so familiar to her face crept back again and again until I couldn't imagine her without it. Though her story had its suffering, her face continuously lit up again and again as she told me of her children. She spoke of her daughter who had just been married, and of her two sons who are studying. She spoke of them in only the way a mother can, with such pride. She laughed heartily as she told me of their children, her grandchildren, and of her husband. Her eyes have seen suffering, they reflected it into mine, but never was that smile far from her face. I realized, as I was listening, that this is a woman who has seen many sides of life. She told me of death, disease, birth, and laughter. One giant cycle. I was proud to sit next to such an amazing woman, and even more grateful to have her by my side, giggling, holding my hand, and telling me her stories.
Towards the end she held my eye contact for a long time. I found myself getting completely wrapped up in the words that fell around my shoulders and the gaze from eyes that have seen far more than mine. Somewhere in this moment, somehow, I realized as I listened, that I saw God in her face.
These are the moments in Tanzania that makes everything worth it.