The AIDS Awareness Campaign (AAC) is a team of three American journalists, writers and photographers who began an eight-month overland journey through the heart of Africa in July 2005 to examine the impact of HIV/AIDS in rural and urban communities. Through the stories of the African people whom they meet along the way, Sean Blaschke, Nathaniel Calhoun, and Tuuli Saarela hope to balance the statistics that are typically used to illustrate the reality of the African AIDS epidemic. Their goal is to enable Western audiences to grasp, on a human level, what a struggle with or against this disease can be like in the least developed region on earth.
The Other Journal managed to catch up with the three team members while they were on the road to ask them some questions about their goals and what they have been experiencing so far. [Interview compiled by TOJ Editor Becky Crook]
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TOJ: What experiences have fostered the idea of your campaign and what did
it take to make the idea into an action?
AAC: Our campaign was initially motivated by a love of travel. Sean and I went to college together and envisioned traveling and volunteering in Africa after graduation. Nate knew neither of us at the time, but he was headed in the same direction. All three of us have lived in Africa for extended amounts of time since finishing our studies and we have all been disappointed by how little Americans seem to understand about Africa.
When the Western media deigns to include Africa in its coverage, it tends to focus on sensational issues like war, famine, genocide, and poverty. Such stories are not representative of our experiences in Africa and serve to make it nearly incomprehensible that a Westerner with options might choose to live and work on this disadvantaged continent.
While our campaign does focus on one of Africa’s great afflictions, we are motivated by our positive conceptions of its hard working people. We hope to desensationalize the struggle against AIDS by sharing with Westerners as much of the variety and commitment of involved individuals as we possibly can.
TOJ: Why is the human story so important in the AIDS awareness campaign?
What is it that makes a good story?
AAC: The human story is central to the AIDS awareness campaign. Only by enabling the Western audience to truly empathize with the effected human beings can we hope to generate any lasting concern or interest.
The human story communicates common goals, aspirations, and hardships while the horrifying figures deployed to represent the suffering of the hungry or diseased elicit depressing and temporary reactions from readers, which tends to make African problems seem irresoluble. Stories that tell of individuals facing hardships and finding unique and significant ways to overcome them can have more of an impact.
TOJ: Who do you hope your audience will be? What reaction do you hope to
generate from your work?
AAC: Our audience is expanding. When the website went up in July, our friends and family were the first to visit. From that point, word has spread as an increasing number of people inform their friends about our plans and aspirations. Now, we are beginning to receive support and information from people we have never met, along with requests for collaboration from grass-roots organizations, bands, and non-profits who are working with AIDS in Africa. We are hoping for this trend to continue. We would like a broad audience of people with an interest in developing a more accurate picture of Africa’s situation; we believe that some of these people will explore ways to help the people and organizations here.
Simultaneously, we are hoping that the people working in Africa on the AIDS issue will contact us if they feel that our attention and coverage could be beneficial. Naturally, we can also use any financial support that we receive; our current resources may be adequate for reaching South Africa—barring any major setbacks—but they will not enable us to cover the more ravaged East African countries.
TOJ: You are currently a few months into your project. Have you encountered surprises that challenged your expectations of what you would be doing? How has your recent travel experience helped to shape or redirect your goals?
AAC: We are now a few months into our project and thankfully, our surprises have been pleasant. The most pleasant surprise has been the graciousness of our hosts and interviewees. We often show up unexpected at organizations and health centers and, despite our unannounced arrival, receive a congenial audience with the relevant representatives within minutes.
We have also been pleasantly surprised by the patience of the Francophone* workers with whom we have communicated. Nate briefly studied French in university and I lived in France for a semester, but neither of us have a level of fluency that enables smooth and professional discourse. However, everyone we have spoken with has been very gracious and comfortable communicating with us at our level of understanding, repeating themselves and rephrasing their ideas without growing frustrated or impatient. Without such cooperation, our project would be going nowhere.
TOJ: Can you give an example of a story you would like to tell?
AAC: The story I am currently working on will focus on women who are in the sex trade. I hope to illuminate the complexity of the challenges faced by modern urban women in Africa who are often excluded from the job market because of their gender. Since they are still expected to earn a living for their survival, poor women in Africa often find that sex is their only commodity. I will be sharing the stories of these women on our website after I have received their permission to do so.
TOJ: The world reaction to the recent decisions made at the G8 Summit in July has been a blend of hopefulness and disappointment. What are your reactions to the amount of aid pledged to the AIDS crisis in Africa? What reactions have you witnessed among people you have met? What do you think should be the next step for the developed nations in dedicating themselves to aid?
AAC: The decisions made at the G8 summit have elicited a wide range of emotions in the Africans with whom we have spoken. They have voiced everything from jaded and bitter cynicism to grateful optimism. For example, in Burkina Faso, a nurse in the rural province of Banfora expressed hope that debt money will soon filter down to his regional hospital and provide AIDS patients with free anti-retroviral medications. Currently, patients must pay 5000 CFA for a one month supply, a price which most rural villagers cannot hope to afford.
On the other end of the spectrum, a major newspaper here in the capital expressed cynicism at the plan to redistribute funds for social programs. They view the new aid package with hesitancy based on their past experiences with the World Bank’s and the International Monetary Fund’s structural readjustment programs. Burkina Faso has a highly centralized government with a strong socialist history; the conditions that underlie western aid do not typically harmonize with governments that are happy to regulate industry and exert control over commerce in order to provide a more impressive infrastructure for their citizens. Of course there are also people who expect that corruption will cause the redistribution of funds to benefit the friends of government ministers and wealthy business owners.
Our personal opinions on aid for developed nations are mixed. Development projects run by international non-governmental organizations do not have an impressive track record here and there are strong arguments for cutting aid to Africa drastically in favor of allowing the continent to develop uncontrolled and independently.
At the same time, taking into consideration the cost and availability of anti-retroviral drugs aid can seem urgently necessary. In that context our belief is that compared to American military spending or even the salary of many well-heeled Americans, the amount of money being pledged is an embarrassment and the pomp and circumstance of the donation unlikely to benefit anyone who wasn’t directly involved with it. We are hoping to offer some clear recommendations, based on firsthand experience about which efforts need what particular sort of assistance.
TOJ: How can an average citizen of a developed country make a concrete difference in changing the African AIDS conflict?
AAC: The first thing that people in the West can do is demand more from the media and their journalists or begin to organize their own tools for informing citizens and generating action. Mainstream media will continue to offer sparse and shallow coverage of Africa as long as its audience does not demand that they do better or begin to abandon them for outlets with more important coverage. The average citizen who struggles to inform himself or herself about the rest of the world, while seeking to spread that interest and concern is doing something good. They can further increase their impact by focusing on the areas where changes can be made and help can be provided, instead of, for instance, spreading hopelessness and guilt.
Action springs from informed judgments based on real understanding. We hope to contribute to this understanding through our writing. We are hoping, also, that an increased level of concern and understanding will lead to cooperative efforts against AIDS and also a much more frequent demand from U.S. citizens to their representatives, that worthy projects are assisted and that suffering outside the U.S. is not ignored.
*A Francophone country is one where French is the national language.
You may read more about the AIDS Awareness Campaign as well as check out the journalists’ day-to-day travel blogs online at http://overland.naomba.com/