The Central African Republic was a long cry from the Gulf Coast, but looking into the eyes of the Africans I met, I saw something familiar each time. When New York Times columnist Nick Kristof and I found ourselves stuck for a few hours on a red clay Cameroonian road at the end of the rainy season behind a logging truck that had flipped over, I pulled out my camera. Everyone wanted his or her picture taken. Teenage boys put on their toughest faces. Teenage girls grimaced because they didn't feel pretty enough. Young kids hammed, putting bunny ears over each others' heads. Older couples smiled sweetly.
"This is just like in America," I thought.
But it was more than just America; the South was my entry point. Before I left, I wondered how I could report in such a foreign place. I've always functioned as a journalist by finding some common ground with my interviewees. I have always been able to find some part of myself in the people I interviewed in the South. But what if I couldn't find that in Africa? My life has been so different—I knew that even before I went.
But I found that entry point. Humans are just humans, and looking into someone's eyes can accomplish so much. Sometimes I found common ground talking about music (most of the teenage boys there love rappers like Jay-Z and 50 Cent), but often I knew how to report a story because working in Mississippi had taught me so much.
We heard the same thing in every city. People won't get tested for HIV. In Yokadouma, Cameroon, Dr. Pascal Pipi, the city's only doctor, told us his hospital has no blood bank because people refuse to donate blood, because they're afraid of the required HIV test. This was a complaint I understood, though. With little access to drugs and a plethora of other worries, why should Cameroonians get tested?
Interviewing AIDS workers in Mississippi, I had often heard the same thing. AIDS in African Americans is increasing because many African Americans with little money see no point in even being tested. They're worried about how they will pay their bills, and how they'll survive the 'hood. A disease that will kill them in 10 years isn't as pressing. Homeless AIDS sufferers in downtown Jackson told me they hadn't cared to find out if they had the disease because they can't afford the drugs anyway.
Stigma, too, plays a large part in curtailing testing. In Mississippi, many African American men who sleep with men (many of whom eschew the term "gay" or "homosexual") don't use condoms because doing so would be admitting that they're consciously sleeping with a man. Still rooted in the deep convictions of the religious South, their sexual proclivities so plague them that they make these destructive decisions with hope of avoiding guilt. Later, they sleep with their girlfriends (because many of them still have girlfriends), quietly passing the disease to them.
In Africa, guilt of sexuality isn't as large a factor so far as I could see, but partners with HIV or AIDS don't confess their diseases because they're afraid of being stigmatized. In Paya, Cameroon, where we stopped to talk with midwives, men in the village told us anyone with AIDS is automatically driven out of the village.
I spoke with a 19-year-old woman, Hermine Popoye, whose brother Pascal had died with AIDS. Hermine had been in technical school, but dropped out to take care of her brother. Her boyfriend broke up with her because he thought she, too, might have AIDS if her brother did. Pascal's treatment left the family broke. When I met them in Yokadouma, Cameroon, the family had only cassava, a starch that contains traces of cyanide. Cassava, which grows pretty rampantly in that part of Africa, is a main staple in Cameroon, though it has little nutritional value. It is usually ground into a pulp, but Pascal's family was down to just the leaves, which have even less nutritional value.
Hermine's boyfriend isn't the only person who fled. Two days after burying Pascal, his wife, Diane, fled the village too.
She left behind 6-year-old Orienne, Pascal's daughter who had just started school. Orienne asks for her mother and her brother, Hermine says, but she isn't sure when to tell her they're not coming back.
That day, Hermine admitted to us that if a man wanted to be her sugar daddy, she wouldn't make him have an HIV test or use a condom because otherwise he might not want her. I thought of a homeless woman in Jackson, Miss., who had told me the same thing about her boyfriend at the time. No, he hadn't had an AIDS test, but how could she ask him for one when he was the only person who loved her?
In our last video blog for the Times, Nick said he thought America had moved on from AIDS.
"No, I don't think so, Nick," I said. I told him about Mississippi, about the problems that still persist in testing and treatment. But it's moved off the front pages, he said. Americans are more concerned with celebrity gossip than a disease that mostly plagues the marginalized. I'm not sure exactly what the answer is, but I think the media has a great responsibility to change those sensibilities, to push people to offer more safe spaces for people living with HIV and AIDS, to call for policy change so that people can get treatment—no matter their financial standing.
That poverty and hunger element of Africa always tear me apart. Without such great poverty, doctors and medicines would be more available. Corruption and theft have caused great unnecessary suffering.
- Ray Carter
Thank you, Casey. One thing this article proves is that all humans are more alike than different, just like Maya Angelou said. The stigma surrounding an AIDS diagnosis is worldwide - the only difference is how the stigma is perpetuated.