A Clear Voice on AIDS

November 30, 2012 By Mark Green

We seem only to think about the rest of the world when we have little choice but to do so – when our awareness is dragged there by conflict or catastrophe.  It’s even true for a former ambassador like me who should know better.

In so many ways, the recent elections consumed all of my time and attention. Professionally, at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC), I was working overtime to host public forums on “smart power” in places like Richmond, Philadelphia and Tampa, and to offer ourselves up as an unbiased policy resource to campaigns on both sides of the aisle. On the side, I was involved in several projects aimed at developing policy recommendations for the next administration and congress.  Even though most of this work focused on foreign policy, it was diplomacy and development at the macro level, at 35,000 feet.  I never really thought about ordinary Africans walking the streets or Central Americans hauling their produce to the local market. We focused more on acronyms and agencies than we did families and small villages.

And then one morning, in the midst of all this chaos, I found a print out on my desk of a brief message that had been sent to USGLC’s Facebook page.

My name is Edwin M. a male Kenyan who was mentored by your very own mark andrew green while he and the wife were on the world teach program. I lost touch of him because since the 2007 election violence I lost all his contacts and its my humble wish that please!! Please!! Help me to connect to him for it is only him and the wife susan green that can help re-shape my life. God bless you so much as you ponder over this.

The message startled me. It had been years since I had heard from any of my former students in that little village where Sue and I taught English as recent college graduates.  And Facebook? When we served in Africa, “social media” was a wind up telephone on a wooden box in the school office. You turned a crank on the side, picked up the receiver, and demanded something like, “Operator, give me 662 Kisumu.”

In the first years after our WorldTeach service, we received lots of letters from students and teachers, usually asking for financial help. Eventually the correspondence dropped off.  Not only was postage too expensive for ordinary Kenyans, but it was nearly impossible to reliably get money to them…most of the families we served didn’t have a mailing address let alone a bank account for deposits or money transfers.

Despite the passage of time, I had a clear recollection of Edwin.  He was the quiet boy, the serious boy who studied hard, and was the near the top of his class. But despite his best efforts, he was very unlikely to go on to university or get a good job. Either his family would run out of money for school fees or he would fall just short on the national exams compared to the many other Kenyans who went to the better resourced schools in bigger towns and cities. Boys like Edwin grew up in intense poverty, and could rise from it – but just slightly.

Even though I guessed it would merely lead to another money request, I answered Edwin’s message. Perhaps I was a little curious, or maybe I was just ready for any diversion from the harshness and negativity of the campaign season.

Days passed without any further word from Edwin. Perhaps his message was a one-time connection. I had visions of a cheap old computer breaking down in some internet café . . . or Edwin spending his last shillings to get his message to me. Then I heard from him.

Teacher, It is a pleasure though i have taken so long to respond; it was not my wish but i have been down with TB and even getting out of bed was not forthcoming but i give all the glory to God now that at least i can walk around.

Teacher, I’m sorry but i just have to tell you that the bitter truth is that me and my wife were diagnosed with the dreaded HIV virus and since then things have been going from bad to worse and even loosing so many friends and kins through stigma.

I have vowed to fight back and be a positive role model and show all the Kenyans that though infected with the virus one can still lead a productive positive life and its to this cause that i humbly need your assistance both in kind and in deed. It is a delicate situation but please!! please!! just come to my rescue and be blessed.

Suddenly I wasn’t so busy . . . and my preoccupation with candidates, polls and an endless stream of ads vanished.  I could think of little else besides that quiet boy who always sat in front of the classroom and who never failed to turn his work in on time. I had no idea how to respond to his message, and before I could, another arrived.

I breathed a sigh of relief when i finally came to contact you and its like we are doing face to face since the early days when you and Madam Sue were here and taught me at makhokho school.

I can say I’m sorry for you brought me up as one of your own and somewhere i lost track and fell in the ditch ( got the HIV virus) and to this i just feel very remorseful for you wouldn’t have thought one of your own to be in this mess

After graduating from makhokho i worked with an industrial firm for 3 years as an attaché. Since then i have had to walk the road without any formal employment largely because of the stigma associated with my being HIV positive; from this i have vowed to recollect myself and never let this bring me down and after attending so many numerous trainings in the area of HIV and AIDS i volunteer my services in the community just with one key message  “moving people to action and let people know their HIV status; if positive they can still lead a productive positive life and if negative they can change their behavior for the better so that they remain HIV negative and together we can score against HIV.”

That is my fight and that is where i would humbly request you as a mentor and comrade to help me achieve my ambition.

Edwin hadn’t asked me for money or even for sympathy, and I wasn’t prepared for that. Not sure what to do, I responded with small talk . . .with the kinds of questions I would’ve asked if we had met up on the street, if I hadn’t heard about his health. Was he still in Kakamega District? Did he have any children?

He got back to me with a new message and a family photo.

You can see yourself my children are smiling. It is because of the stigma that me and my family are housed by a friend in Nairobi. This is because for one we cant afford to rent a house of our own. Having been trained to the level of an African stigma trainer by International AIDS alliance i can teach others health literacy and I can roll out tots for a pool of new stigma trainers in all the counties in Kenya.  I strongly believe i have the potential and if this dream comes true it will for sure prove that even with HIV one can still lead a productive positive life and this will help us in “getting to zero.”

I wonder if Edwin can fully appreciate how much his story changed the way I approached my work in the final weeks of the elections.  Suddenly, PEPFAR, that strange sounding acronym representing the historic AIDS initiative launched by President George W. Bush, was so much more than numbers and charts: it was a precious lifeline giving Africans like Edwin M. some semblance of hope.  The Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria was no longer some mysterious account administered in Geneva: it was the world’s compassionate response to a humanitarian catastrophe.  All the work that USGLC and others did during the campaign season to highlight the importance of our global health tools never made more sense to me than it did after I heard from my former student.

After a number of exchanges with Edwin, I found my voice. I no longer felt awkward in talking about his condition and his challenges. At the end of one of my emails, I simply wrote:

Edwin, I want you to know that I am proud of the man you have become.