28 Stories of AIDS in Africa by Stephanie Nolen

Scott Fontaine
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

28 Stories personalizes tragedy of AIDS in Africa.

28 Stories of AIDS in Africa

Publisher: Walker & Company
ISBN: 0802715982
Author: Stephanie Nolen
Price: $25.95
Length: 384
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-05

About 5,500 people died in sub-Saharan Africa yesterday -- about one and a half times the number of American troops killed since the invasion of Iraq -- and few people in the United States noticed.

The killer wasn't a war or famine or natural disaster but rather a virus the shape of a spiky basketball which hijacked its victims' DNA, replicated itself and then destroyed the host's immune system.

The killer was AIDS, and it will kill 5,500 more Africans today. And tomorrow. And every day for the foreseeable future. The scourge of the disease and its precursor virus, HIV, is destroying lives, families, communities and countries. The disease's effect on everyday people is the subject of Stephanie Nolen's book, 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa, a group of profiles written by the reporter for Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper.

The pandemic has all but disappeared from today's media. One reason seems to be the so-called "AIDS fatigue" -- simply put, Americans are tired of reading about the disease. Dying with AIDS is a gruesome way to die, and it doesn't make good reading or fun watching.

Also, living with HIV/AIDS in the West has become not much different than living with a chronic disease. The development of antiretroviral drugs -- which can arrest the spread of HIV or AIDS but don't cure it -- is one of the most underappreciated and remarkable breakthroughs in medicine in decades.

Many countries are offering free or subsidized ARVs -- but the drugs are hard to come by in the area with the highest rates of infection: sub-Saharan Africa.

The decreasing interest abroad and a sense of horror after witnessing a group of Tanzanian men wasting away with the virus is why Nolen chose to focus her efforts on reporting HIV/AIDS.

And why 28 stories? According to the United Nations' AIDS organization, 28 million of the estimated 39.5 million people in the world living with the disease live in Africa.

The book's profiles can be heartbreaking or inspiring -- or sometimes both at the same time. One such case is Lefa Khoele, a 12-year-old Basotho boy born with HIV who has been too sick to take his year-end school exams, so he's stuck in a class with 7-year-olds. Still, he makes the best of things -- he's learning gardening, and his ambition isn't dimmed by the disease.

There's Mohammed Ali, a Kenyan trucker who frequently purchased the services of prostitutes on his routes. After testing positive, he changed his behavior: no sex with his wife (who is HIV-negative) or prostitutes. No more cigarettes or drinking. He believes the disease will kill him, "but everybody dies one day," he said.

And there's Cynthia Leshomo, who won the Miss HIV Stigma-Free beauty contest in Gabarone, Botswana, and is trying to break social taboos.

The most famous person profiled in this book is Nelson Mandela. South Africa's first post-apartheid president announced two years ago that his final surviving son, Makgatho Mandela, had died of AIDS-related diseases.

The power of the announcement can't be overstated. Mandela was the glue that kept the "Rainbow Nation" from fracturing into race-based warfare after the first all-race elections in 1994. He's the only politician respected among almost all races, classes and political affiliations. And then he announced AIDS had affected the Mandela family, too.

"The admission that AIDS had touched them, too, made it all a bit more normal, a bit less shameful," Nolen writes.

It's difficult to figure out if the war on HIV/AIDS is being won. Various groups give mixed signals. One example: Siphiwe Hlophe founded a successful grass-roots AIDS awareness and treatment group in Swaziland, but the country's King Mswati III, Africa's last ruling monarch, is a polygamist who chooses a new wife each year. He's up to 13 wives.

South Africa transmits the most conflicting messages. Mandela, now a vocal advocate for increased HIV/AIDS funding and treatment, was largely silent about the disease while in office.

Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, has called AIDS a disease of the poor and defended a group of scientists who allege HIV does not cause AIDS. He's criticized the West for its portrayal of the pandemic in Africa, saying reporters buy into the stereotype that Africans are savage and unable to control their bodies.

His health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has promoted a diet rich in vegetables as a traditional cure for the virus. After much domestic and international fury over her statements, she's modified it -- now she says the best cure is a diet and antiretroviral drugs.

Yet despite this sharp rise in boneheadedness at the top of Africa's richest and most industrialized nation, there are positive signs. Mbeki's Cabinet forced the president to accept South Africa's use of antiretroviral drugs, and it commanded Tshabalala-Msimang to develop a way to distribute them free to those who can't afford them. The president has backed off his previous comments, and his health minister is fading away from the political scene because of health concerns.

The drug rollout program is under way, but only reaches 250,000 of the 5 million infected in South Africa. Within five years, Pretoria hopes ARVs will reach 80 percent. But the stigma remains: Most people do not want to be tested or acknowledge the disease.

These are the obstacles in Africa's richest nation. Cross the borders into some of its neighbors -- Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia -- and suddenly the poverty rate skyrockets and the infection rate increases.

These countries often can't afford to give away ARVs.

Every day, Nolen reminds us at the end of her book, 5,500 people in Africa die of AIDS-related diseases. More are infected every day. Therefore, she writes, "we have twenty-eight million reasons to act."

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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