Saturday, February 28, 2009

The beginning of all this: Leave for Change

With all the knowledge that I had and the experience that I accumulated through my work in the HIV/AIDS arena over the years, I would occasionally think about doing a stint at volunteering in Africa or some other place in the world where I might be able to contribute. I even investigated a bit here and there, especially when I would encounter some one from an international development agency dedicated to connecting volunteers to compatible HIV /AIDS assignments like ICAD in Ottawa.

I found all kinds of reasons not to pursue it. I needed chiropractic care from time to time and that was not available. I was having perpetual eye problems and was afraid to be away from my specialist for a long period of time. But mostly I was not ready to walk into the void of the unknown for a period of six months or a year, which is what most assignments started with. In short, I was afraid, or not yet committed enough to carry through with what I thought I wanted.

That was in the days between the 'heady' work of financial management, was had left me completely cold and the work with the BC Persons with AIDS Society which I had come to love and which fed my passions. Once I was working here in Vancouver and finding it rewarding, I had a good reason to avoid going away for a year or so.

Then last summer, I ran across an article on a Canadian overseas volunteer program called Leave for Change. This program provides short term assignments for professionals who are still working. The assignments are usually from 3 to 4 weeks, the volunteer donating their vacation time to the program. This can be in a number of specialized areas such as HIV / AIDS, horticulture, engineering etc. It sounded interesting and just what I wanted. Did I have the qualifications and the experience they needed?

I checked it on the website of the Uniterra Program ( and clicked on Leave for Change. I was intrigued and excited. Could this be it? An email to the Program Officer, Philippe Leduc [] with my resume followed. Soon I heard back. Yes, they believed that I had skills they could use. They would send out my resume to their sector officers in the field and see if there was any interest in my skill set as there was not a job that complemented my skills on the current volunteer request list.

After a couple of weeks, I heard back. Yes, there is a group in Gaborone ( gHa-ba-row-neigh), Botswana that is interested in your business background, your financial planning-accounting skills. What!! Wait a minute! That’s not what I feel passionate about. Finance is part of a past life and I really don’t want to go back there. Is there not something else that might fit with my other skills, more people focused?

Friday, February 27, 2009

The beginning of all this: the fate of Africa - HIV / AIDS

In addition to all the issues and difficulties that Africa has had to deal with, as noted in my previous posts, Africa has also had to deal with the overwhelming reality of HIV / AIDS in a way that few other places on the planet have had to.

AIDS was first recognized in Africa in the early 1980’s, as it was elsewhere. It started in the centre of the continent and soon spread along the trade and trucking routes mainly through heterosexual sex, in contrast to North America and Europe where it was spread predominantly through gay sex. The truckers doing long haul work, away from home, used the services of sex trade workers and spread the infection rapidly along the main routes and quickly north and south. Soon there was no where on the continent that was not affected by “the slim disease” as it was known due to its wasting affect. We now know that because of its long asymptomatic period that the virus had been in circulation and was being spread for as long as 20 years or more.

Husbands spread it to their wives when they got home and soon a whole generation was sick and dying. The whole world was scrambling, trying to make sense of the horror that was unfolding. In Africa, where epidemiologists speculated the virus had originated, the rate of infection was higher and the disease progression seemed more evolved. Thousands were dying. Children ended up as caregivers and nurses for their parents, hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned, and grandmothers stepped into the breach to raise their grandchildren, often in great hardship. Children ended up without any adults to care for them and were left to fend for themselves.

There was no organized assistance or money for this anywhere. Many African countries, as I tried to illustrate in my previous post, were in dire economic straits, without health care systems of any kind and no funds available to divert to this crisis. Aid from the 'first' world was slow to start because of the stigma attached to the disease as being a gay [ a disease belonging to a disenfranchised group in society – as it still is today, although to a lesser degree] and totally unknown phenomenon spread through hedonistic living and 'perverted' sexual behaviour. There was no inclination to act quickly in the west for its own people in need, let alone the hordes in faraway Africa. Remember Ronald Reagan could not even say the word AIDS in public until the last year of his presidency.

Soon we knew that millions were infected. A whole generation was dying in the prime of their lives. The professional class was as affected as the working class. Children went without teachers; there was a shortage of medical staff to help with it as they were dying too. The disease has a lot of stigma attached to it and so it was not dealt with publicly or head on. There was no education and virtually no condom use

Eventually a few leaders in a few countries realized that the people destruction and the economic impact of this disease was so huge, that total devastation threatened if no action was taken. Senegal and Uganda are two of the first countries to start and continue active public education and publicity campaigns on HIV /AIDS prevention. They successfully reduced their infection rates dramatically within a few years and have generally been able to keep them there.

But it has been very difficult for the whole continent. Besides the devastation caused by the great numbers of people dying with little care, crowds of orphans raising themselves in a manner reminiscent of “Lord of the Flies”, the loss of the professional class and no money, there were countervailing forces complicating the effort. The slowness of the world waking up to help was one, stigma was another and active spreading of wrong information is another. There have been lots of myths about HIV that get in the way of stopping its spread. For some time there was the idea that if you had sexual relations with a virgin, you would be cured. Another myth was that it was cured by special shaman made concoctions or special foods – such as the recent Health Minister of South Africa promoting leeks, garlic and onions as a cure. The idea that AIDS was not spread by the HIV virus also gained some currency and the South African Prime Minister Mbeki seemed to believe that and hampered efforts to make progress in that country. Finally, although by no means the last falsehood present, and to me the most shamefully egregious, was the Catholic Church pushing abstinence and teaching that condoms do not work; actively campaigning against their use.

Much of this still exists and we just don’t hear about it. The world – at least in the west, is tired of hearing about HIV /AIDS and the horror stories it brings. It is no longer “good press”. Bob Geldof and Bono have ‘guilted’ us to the limit. We are more entertained by new disasters both at home and abroad such as campus shooters, Darfur, and the horrible civil war in the Congo, the endless atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan, the posturings of crazed leaders in Iran and North Korea and…..

I am in the biz, know a bit about it and so can offer a little help. I have long thought about contributing my skills and realizing a dream even though the place of my dream is twisted beyond recognition. And now I am doing it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The beginning of all this: the fate of Africa, part 2

Africa also has to deal with many other problems and concerns in addition to the political turmoil briefly looked at in my last post.

One big part of it is catching up in the 21st century after having been isolated, exploited and war torn for so long. Infrastructure has often been related only to resource extraction and was there for the convenience of mining and oil interests and for specialty farming such as cocoa; for those exploiting the continent. The planning was not necessarily done with the well being of the people in mind. Telecommunications is jumping from pre-modern to wireless in 30 years. Workers were often recruited with the lure of more money than subsistence farming could provide and then were displaced from traditional homes and family supports to work 100’s of miles away in mines or oil fields.

This severely impacted the social structures and values. Men worked long hours, lived in subsistence conditions and had little in the way of diversion, not being with their families more than once or twice a year. This led to considerable prostitution and drinking as the primary forms of entertainment. After the onset of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980’s, this proved to have dire consequences still affecting the complete social, economic and spiritual fabrics for the continent.

Concurrent with the resource extraction and people displacement came industrialization and urbanization at a faster clip than most of us in the west have experienced. Again, people left traditional lifestyles with the promise of jobs, money (often unrealized) and a “modern” life in new cities, but often ending up in nothing more than shanty towns such as in Nairobi and Soweto, with all the social and psychological displacement and distress that comes with extreme slum dwelling. Prostitution was and often still is rampant as it often was/is the only way women can earn a living to feed their kids.

Land use changed with industrialization and mining. Monoculture farming compromised fertility, increased soil erosion and changing weather patterns impacted water distribution. Lakes dried up in some areas and desertification brought the Sahara south at a clip of many miles each year for many years. Some of these problems are finally being addressed with some success by changing farming practices to be less intensive, more based on native crops and appropriate mixes of trees and crops in the sub Saharan region.

Fast population growth during the past 50 years has just added to the negative impact of the above influences.

All this development has also had great impact on the diverse and spectacular wild life of Africa from the Mediterranean to the southern tip. Land use for industrialization and expanded farming to feed the growing population encroached on many animals’ rich feeding grounds and migratory routes that have nurtured them since before time was recorded. As we know in the Yukon, Quebec and Alaska, disrupting migration routes for oil pipelines and hydro electric lines has devastating effects on the indigenous fauna. Climate pattern change a
lso does as we know with the news of the polar bears’ feeding and migratory changes. Africa is seeing a lot of this. Big game can now often only be found on nature reserves and have to be protected from poachers by armed patrols, usually at great risk. Many animals are on the endangered species lists; like the white rhinoceros shown here. Many are losing ground to increased hunting to feed the larger population. Endangered animals are frequently sold as meat in village marketplaces. The non-African world contributes to the slaughter with our often ignorant wish for trinkets, ivory and animal parts for medicine and trophies, although the good news press tells us this is contained. The current strife in the Congo on the Rwanda border is endangering the last survivors of the gentle mountain gorilla.

Animals are often in direct conflict with people trying to eke out a living. With impoverished soils and population growth, there is greatly expanded use of the land for farming, the same land animals have grazed for millennia. As farms produce, the animals come to eat, and most of us have seen the stories of elephants easily breaking through protective barriers – at their peril as the hungry people try to scare them away, at times killing elephants so they can save their crops for harvest.

Tourism is a strain. The wealthy hunter seeking a trophy for his wall – or whatever hunters do with their gruesome prize - is another challenge for African governments now seeking to preserve their natural riches and heritage. Some see the growing ecotourism industry as an alternate way to provide continuing income and much needed currency, while nurturing the precious resource that attracts so many like me.

I am describing the challenges that Africa faces, one to recognize that the place of my youthful fantasy does not and maybe never did exist, and secondly to raise awareness. The motivation that I have to go there is my fascination with the continent and my passion for equality, advocacy and justice. I seek to contribute in my own little way, much as I do in working my passion here in Vancouver, but now I get to fulfill life long dream at the same time. Hopefully, I will be allowed to leave something useful behind.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The beginning of all this: the fate of Africa

Of course, all those dreams from the 1950's of my childhood, even if somewhat based in reality then, would come upon a very changed Africa today.

An Africa changed by modernization, political evolution, independence, internal strife, population growth, urbanization, racism, exploitation, land abuse and degradation of habitats. Much of the story of the past fifty + years in Africa is based on the independence from the colonial hegemony and powers, from the British, French, Dutch, Belgians and Portuguese to name some of them. The shift to independence began in the Gold Coast [now Ghana] with Kwame Nkrumah and spread across the continent over the next few decades. Some were relatively peaceful transitions with some elections happening but most were violent and difficult, greatly impacting the poor and the powerless. A detailed and sweeping record of this time is in the book by Martin Meredith from which I took the title of this post: The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence.

It is the story of a continent of diverse peoples, geography, cultures, languages and religions. A continent carved up by the white colonial powers with little regard for cultural and tribal demarcations, mixing people that had been traditional enemies for centuries and suddenly throwing them together to work and cohabit. This, and many other factors, of course, as nothing is as simple as it might appear, led to much internal strife for dominance, for power, and the riches of Africa that the rest of the world wanted. It led to coup after coup, with much bloodshed and horror, violence and death.

A listing of names and places will bring up the history of wars, civil wars, famines, genocide and self appointed life time dictators, only a few of which were benign. This is by no means complete, I am only attempting to paint a picture of the sectarian violence that has plagued this beautiful continent. Some of the men are Bokassa, Kenyatta, Taylor, Mugabe, Idi Amin, Mengistu, Qaddafi, Nyerere, Verwoerd, and Nkrumah. Some of the places of strife in my memory are Angola, Zimbabwe, Nigeria-Biafra, Sudan-Darfur, Congo, South Africa, Rwanda, Libya, Uganda, Somalia and many more. Some of the heroes are Patrice Lumumba, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Romeo Dallaire, but the anti-heroes and despots far out-number them

Tribalism created much strife and was even exploited by some of the colonial powers as in the case of Rwanda pitting the Hutus and Tutsis against each other. Many countries ended up in endless tribal warfare with self appointed dictators, stealing their country's resources and wealth for themselves their families, their tribesmen and their cronies, setting up Swiss bank accounts and then finding a nice place to live out their days after they were finally ousted. This is a generalization, of course, but it was the case in more countries in Africa than I want to remember. I was horrified by the exploitation and inhumanity throughout Meredith's modern history of the continent. And it is still going on today in a number of places with the rest of the world looking on with the attitude of: It is not our business" - this is what fueled the genocide in Rwanda and kept it going, and now allows violent rape to be used as a weapon of war in the Congo - even though much of the chaos is a result of resource exploitation and the impact of colonialism on the indigenous people and cultures. Again, I recognize that is a generalization!.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The beginning of all this: the spectre of HIV

The next chapter leading up to this travel adventure to Africa comes from a less innocent interest than that described in my first post.

I now go back to the early 1980's; 1981/82 to be exact. This was the year of GRID - Gay Related Immune Deficiency, which soon morphed into AIDS - Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, when the scientists got over their homophobic bias and realized that a virus that affected only gay people did not and could not exist.

The news of this frightening new phenomenon emerged slowly in the first year HIV appeared on the western scene. We now know from the microbe gumshoes that the virus was travelling around the world and was making its way into the white world hegemony of North America and Europe in the 1960's and '70's and possibly earlier. This was possible as there is a non symptomatic period of up to 20 years and beyond after infection by HIV, before the HIV empowers the invasion of Opportunistic Infections into the body and marshalls the onset of full blown AIDS.

I was living in my sheltered little world, one person at work and with family and another person out and about on weekends. Soon I was hearing of people that I knew coming down with this new disease, or what ever it was as there no common name for it - it was totally unknown and had never been encountered knowingly before. Many gay people were affected. Shunning and discrimination was the mainstream reaction and we soon realized we had to help ourselves. People were getting sick and dying. When people I knew came down with it and then some friends, I could no longer say that it did not affect me. They were dying, in horrible isolation, rejected by families, isolated by the health system [it was not 'health care' for them], in awful conditions with horrible diseases like Kaposi's Sarcoma[ a very visible skin cancer that became the AIDS marker for years], PCP [a pneumonia], CMV and much more acompanied by wasting, fungi, diarrhea, and more and very toxic, experimental drugs.

I started to volunteer with the newly formed AIDS Committee of Toronto - ACT. At first, I worked on a few committees, then was elected to the Board as Treasurer [logical as I worked in Finance in my other life] and then as Vice Chair. I was asked to run for Chair but that was too public for my guilt ridden, closeted, homophobic self, as that meant having to speak to the press in those early hysterical days of the pandemic and I could not yet bring myself to do that.

I continued to work for years with ACT and the culmination of my work there was co facilitating a support group for People with AIDS. This was another logical step as I was also a qualified social worker and I had a big living room where we could have the meetings. There was no money or public meeting space available to 'those people with that disease'. Today no one would ever dream of having support meetings like that in their home, and we learned through harsh experience. I was with the group for 2 years and literally watched people die before my eyes. The conventional 'wisdom' was that one would live for 18 - 24 months after diagnosis and that is what happened. I felt guilty because I was healthy when all those around me were dying - now labelled 'survivor's guilt'. I never left the meeting physically as I was already in my home, so I left the meeting by drinking half a bottle of vodka on my own after the others had gone. This way I would blot out my thoughts, my emotions, my pain, and eventually fall asleep, so I could get up the next morning to go to my job, my other life as though nothing had happened.

At about the time I was ready for an emotional breakdown, I was spared that as serendipitiously, I was tranferred to Vancouver with my day job. I stopped my involvement in the HIV arena for reasons of self preservation and healing for some years. I resumed the HIV/AIDS volunteer work in 2000, quit my finance career and started to work full time for the BC Persons With AIDS Society in 2002, where I am today. In the meantime, the pandemic was and is still wreaking chaos, death and destruction in the Africa that had been the focus of my imagination for so long, for almost 50 years since those black grainy missionary movies back in the Baptist Church in Chatham, Ontario.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The beginning of all this: the childhood dreams

In the fifties, when I was in 3rd or 4th grade in Chatham, Ontario, Canada,my fascination with Africa began. I grew up in a religious family and Vacation Bible School [VBS] was a good thing. And I wanted to go to the VBS at the local Baptist Church, even though the Baptist Church was considered lightweight in the family circles. But I went, not so much for the Bible stories, but because I knew that there would be missionaries there who were based in Africa and they would tell of their work. Most importantly they would show black and white movies of Africa, of wild, fierce, beautiful and unimaginable animals and lots of other things. I was mesmerized by the out-of-mind locations, the jungle - we had nothing like that in Ontario and I remembered nothing similar from my first five years of life on a Dutch island in the Rhine/Maas delta

It was exotic, foreign and beyond my imagination. I loved the animals and could not imagine anywhere where they would roam freely. I dreamt of someday being able to go travelling to see them. The people intrigued me; living in brilliant sunshine in summer clothes all year long - although at the time I did not realize that the white attitudes towards them were, to say the least - patronizing. It all seemed very far away and impossible.

We did not have television, but I knew that my favourite shows were the nature shows when I got to watch TV at my friends' places. Mutual of Omaha's The Wild KIngdom with Marlin Perkins is burned into my memory. As I got older and through out my adulthood, the only real compelling and unspoken reason to have a television was to watch the nature shows and especially those that showcased exotic locales. Nature on PBS has long been special to me along with The Nature of Things with David Suzuki on CBC and many others. That continues to this day. I escape into them when I want to go to a 'more natural state'; supposedly not as conflicted as our lives in the urban jungle.