September 14th, 2000|
Hello from Lesotho! September is the month wheh thousands of peach trees, tens of thousands really, bloom across the Mountain Kingdom. A smattenng are planted in orchards, but for the most part they're planted throughout rondeval villages or struggling to survive among the hillside contour maize fields. It's such an improbable sight in Africa and for that reason, all the more magical.
As Lynn and I head into our second year al our Peace Corps site, I thought I'd use my modest, but accumulating observations to write about the HIV/AIDS pandemic this month. This painful subject is on my mind because of an editorial I saw this week in a second hand copy of the International Herald Tribune. The paper noted that currently 95% of all the AIDS prevention money is being spent in the industrialized world, while 95% of those infected live in the developing world. I think it's hard to imagine what paltry sums are available to fight this catastrophe here in the rural areas of Lesotho. The latest statistics show that about 24% of Basotho young women 5 to 25 are infected. (You may wish to read that statistic again.) The rates for young men are less because infected older men, often returned miners have relations with younger girls and women.) The bureaucracies, including the NGO's, hold endless meetings and wear red ribbons. The odd poster goes up but the availability of condoms and the necessary face to face discussions with vulnerable groups here is dismayingly small. Lynn lectures on AIDS, graphically in her English and small business classes. I talk about it in my furniture making workshop. But we are reaching a few dozen students at best. Lynn was taken aback recently when one of her students explained "Everyone tells us to use condoms, but they're not available". Actually, they are available. There is a condom machine at our local hospital in full view of the gate guard, vendors and visitors only meters away. Of course our students are as shy about these issues as young people anywhere and wouldn't he caught dead at this machine. Lynn has been trying for weeks now to locate and purchase a condom dispenser for our Farmer Training Center. She's called aII the NOG's, etc , but has drawn a blank. A South African condom salesman (!) has now joined the search, but without luck so far. The Peace Corps may, or may not, have money at some point for this "war". Though it has declared it a priority for Volunteers and has recently held an AIDS conference in Lesotho I offer this backdrop to make a point: despite all the hand wringing, precious little seems to me to be happening on the ground, at the village level, where it can make a difference.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the AIDS disaster is how quietly Africans die one by one, often refusing to acknowledge that they have the disease, out of shame. It's always TB or pneumonia or other ailments that claim our neighbors' lives. Funerals are normally on Saturday here, but have started to take place on Fridays as well. Too many burials for one day a week. Lynn and I came back from South Africa last week and were stunned to pass the Zastron, Free State cemetery. There, row upon row of fresh earthen graves lent mute testimony to this calamity. Given it's scope and the lame attempts to change people's behavior, it's hard to see where it will end. Last year South Africa had a $17 million AIDS budget, but, of that, $6.2 million went un-spent (IHT 4/25/2000). The sense of urgency somehow seems lacking even as the pain and suffering becomes unbearable.
The Peace Corps is placing a new Volunteer this week at a Moale's Hoek orphanage. (Lynn and I donate a case of peanut butter to these children monthly.) This level of assistance, I'm sure, will he getting further Volunteer attention in the future. The enormity of this problem can't stop our efforts, individually and collectively, to help. For Americans, who resolutely believe that problems CAN be solved, this AIDS conundrum is thoroughly frustrating. And that's what we have to live with, our frustrations...
Lynn and I gave a "getting started" pep talk to the new class of Volunteers finishing their training this week at Roma. Other Vols contributed their efforts throughout the nine week program. We were impressed at the wonderful span of ages again in this group of trainees Lesotho has Vols from 22 to at least 73 years old. And all have unique talents to bring to bear for our development work.
All best wishes from Qacha's Nek,