Read Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, a Country's Hope Online

Authors: Uzodinma Iweala

Tags: #Social Science, #Travel, #Africa, #West, #Disease & Health Issues

Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, a Country's Hope (15 page)

BOOK: Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, a Country's Hope
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When Felix finally pulled his car to a stop just beyond the throng, a mighty shout rose up, as if a great hero had arrived. Felix slipped into his role, moving from group to group, offering greetings, teasing and cracking jokes with kids, whose smiles widened and eyes brightened in his presence. He was electric, inspiring and controlling at the same time. Within moments of his arrival, lines formed with the loose regimentation of people unused to order. They unfurled a white banner with red, blue, and green lettering that encouraged the community to
FIGHT AIDS!
A song erupted, led by a young woman; her tight yellow shirt carried the slogan
ZIP UP!
It was a flirtatious appeal to abstinence.

“We are the world. We are its children,” she sang. “We are the ones to make a better place, so let’s fight AIDS now. We march in unity. Fighting H-I-V AIDS. We are the ones to make a brighter day, just you and me.” The group behind her followed along in disorganized, democratic harmony.

From nowhere a young man appeared in the middle of the road, arm raised to his forehead in frozen salute. He wore a white cloth around his waist. The rest of his body was painted white from head to toe, and he wore black wraparound sunglasses. The word
AIDS
was painted in green across his chest, and when, after a long pause, he finally turned around, I saw that slogan found in so many social marketing campaigns—
AIDS IS REAL
—dripping down his back in the same green paint. He began a slow comical imitation of a soldier’s march down a small stretch of road. The first regiment of youths followed him closely, holding candles in their hands with flickering flames that, in broad daylight, were almost invisible. The village road filled with young bodies, and the air grew heavy with a feverish call: “Fight fight fight AIDS!” The shrill voices of young women came to the point of cracking at the last minute, bolstered by young men’s deep and rumbling call to arms: “Fight fight fight AIDS!” Together they sang, “Today, today, tomorrow no more! If we fight AIDS today we go fight am no more!” They clapped, stomped, and ululated.

The whole group blobbed from one side of the road to the other as curious drivers slowed to observe the commotion. I wasn’t sure if the younger marchers in the procession, the ten-year-olds, understood exactly why they were marching, but they seemed overjoyed to be a part of something larger than themselves. They weaved among older kids, who seemed equally thrilled by the moment. Today they could speak so freely about something so taboo. As the group proceeded down the village road, the noise they generated called people from their houses to porches and front steps. A man appeared in his doorway in green slacks and an undershirt, his eyes dull with sleep. His two young daughters stood beside him in white dresses and head ties, all three captivated by the shouting, singing youth. After a moment, he smiled, clapped his hands, and shouted words of encouragement. All along the road, this scene repeated itself. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends: they appeared at windows and on front lawns, on porches or in the cars sliding by, and they cheered, they clapped, they honked. I looked for Felix. He cautiously navigated the open gutter’s edge by the side of the road as he tried to provide subtle direction while letting the youths lead the way. His shirt clung to his body in places where the heat and humidity made him sweat.

“This is amazing!” I said to Felix when I managed to work my way through the mass of people over to him.

“My brother, eh!” was his only reply. He turned to face a car approaching the group and waved to the driver to slow down. “Have you seen this? Believe me. Young people are looking for something to say. They are looking for people to come out and lead them. They know that these problems are here, and they are looking for somebody that will come out and tell them, ‘Let’s start doing something to fight this problem.’ This is creating a lot of awareness in the community. People who have seen are going to be touched by this. Young people who have been affected by HIV and AIDS are the people carrying out this message. Young people will learn from each other, and they will say, ‘Who am I when my mates are actually on the road shouting anti-HIV/AIDS songs? Why wouldn’t I join them?’ And before you know it, behavior change starts to set in, gradually gradually.”

Earlier, on the drive from the airport when he had first picked me up, Felix had said, “Young people tend to do things they hear from their mates. I’m a peer-education trainer for UNICEF, and when I go for peer-education training programs, I use myself as an example. I tell them they are very lucky, because all things I learned about sexuality, I learned on my own. My father never talked to me about it. My mother never talked to me about it. The real experience was when I visited a brothel. I had an inquisitive mind. I wanted to know exactly what it was like, because every day on my way to school, I would always pass through that brothel area, and you see young girls, you see guys drinking beer as early as seven thirty to eight in the morning. I was seeing people smoking, drinking—very rough faces—and I thought it was one wonderful thing. That first time I went, I felt like I was into something the big boys do. When I came out, I regretted the whole move. You know, sex is one thing; the excitement is that when you haven’t done it, you haven’t done it. There is vagina; you want to put your penis in it and know you’re doing it. But by the time you know, you come, and you’re like, ‘Is this all? Is this all?’ And you’re paying money!

“I got gonorrhea and I didn’t like it. When I was having pains, I didn’t even go to my father. I didn’t go to my mum. I went to my schoolmates. I went and talked to a young guy that was actually in my class. The guy was like, ‘Don’t worry! It’s a very small thing!’ He told me I should go and buy schnapps, kai-kai [a local moonshine], and drink a bottle of Coke filled up with kai-kai. I believed him. I took it, and it didn’t stop. But where we were living, there was a pharmacist, and I went to him and said, ‘Look. This is what is up.’ The guy gave me an injection, and it stopped.”

He smiled sheepishly and added, “So the concept of peer education actually comes from the fact that young people tend to influence each other more.”

It’s not a new concept. Popular culture, progressive attitudes, and new ideas around the world are usually generated by and promoted through the conversations and interactions of younger people. This often requires speaking loudly about precisely the things that make an older generation uncomfortable. Especially in Nigeria, youth voices often smash right into the stubborn will of the gerontocracy. Elders in our societies are treasured not only as people but also as textbooks of history, philosophy, ethics, and practical matters. Their life experience and their wisdom are the experience and wisdom of the whole community; therefore, they can readily, and in some cases justly, respond to agitating youth with the question “What do you know?” But a primary reason the HIV/AIDS epidemic exploded in Nigeria and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa is an unwillingness to seriously discuss issues that clearly affect youth. In many places around the world, the talk and action on HIV/AIDS and related issues, such as safe sex or treatment, have been driven by youth movements eager to bring attention to and find solutions for their concerns. The feedback, even if contentious or slow, often produces positive results.

When I asked Felix what the older people in the community would think about the day’s events, he responded, “They are very happy about it. You’re going to see them at the hall. They are all watching. They know that these problems are here, but they don’t know how to tackle it. That’s the problem. You see, when young people begin to do things themselves, the older people now come in. I have been able to sample their opinion, and I know that they are very much interested here. They like what is happening.”

Indeed, when the youth march returned, the newly painted hall was filled with adults, who sat in the dimness fanning themselves. They were either unaware of or chose not to comment on the fact that the balloons dangling from the ceiling above them were actually inflated condoms. As each marcher entered the meeting hall, he or she dripped a bit of wax onto a concrete platform a single step off the ground, which served as a stage, then fixed his or her candle to the ground to the right of the platform until they had formed a large blazing AIDS ribbon. Then once reassembled onstage, they broke into religious praise songs. Even the elders clapped and lent their voices.

Suddenly a young man with a black Kangol cap turned backward and stepped toward the audience as the chorus behind him hushed down to a resonating hum. With an exaggerated strut, he approached a girl standing in the corner with close-cropped hair and prominent dimples on her nervous, smiling face. He peacocked around her, made sweet overtures, and stroked her cheeks, but she offered a forceful resistance. The audience chuckled knowingly as they gave the couple their full attention.

“I no want die. I no want catch AIDS!” the girl said loudly. “So make we wait until marriage or use condom.”

The audience clapped while mm-hmm-ing and aha-ing at this message of responsibility appended to a plea for abstinence. Abstinence is, after all, the best way to prevent the spread of HIV and certainly an appreciated message in so religious a country as Nigeria. The skit also highlighted the complexities of messaging in communities that extol traditional values. In order to be effective, the conversation can push the limits only so far. As a messaging expert from the Society for Family Health explained to me, Nigerians are easily offended. As a country and within our separate cultural groups, we are still not ready to have explicit discussions about sex, as is done in the West. This is slowly changing, however, as new technologies allow a younger population access to a wider range of experiences and attitudes as well as more direct ways of communicating with one another.

In the darkness outside, thunder rumbled in the distance when the keynote speaker finally took the stage. He was a slight man with light brown skin, a pencil-thin mustache above his upper lip, and sweat soaking his clothes from the exertion of clapping and shouting in affirmation. His forehead was a glistening arc in the hall’s dim light. For a moment before he spoke, the room was completely still. The chorus had stopped humming and stood silently behind him, next to the flickering candle AIDS ribbon. He wasn’t from the village, and no one had seen him before. The way his white garment caught the candlelight, how his face shone, and the intensity of his gaze in that sliver of a moment before he opened his mouth made me feel that I had stumbled into a séance. In a sense, he was a seer because he was HIV positive, he said. The room hushed because none of us had known. You would never have been able to tell by looking at him.

“AIDS!” he shouted. “AIDS! Am I Doing Something? AIDS means ask yourself, Am I Doing Something?’”

Nigerians have a talent for inventing alternative meanings for acronyms. NEPA, the old Nigerian Electric Power Association, quickly became Never Expect Power Again and when renamed the Power Holding Corporation of Nigeria (PHCN) was popularly called Problem Has Changed Name. Despite the heat and the late hour, which had drawn the sound of tree frogs and crickets from the surrounding foliage, the audience perked up. “Am I doing something? Should I be doing something?” their newfound attention asked. “What can I do?”

The speaker stalked back and forth from one side of the stage to the other, fluidly switching between English and Igbo, tossing long strings of one language out to the audience along an accusatory finger and then punctuating them with short syllables from another, his “Yes oh!” and “Enh enh” mirrored in stereo sound by the villagers in front and the youthful chorus behind.

“AIDS. Am I Doing Something?” the speaker asked again.

“Am I Doing Something!” the audience responded for the last time before the speaker released them, putting an end to the night. The villagers filed away into the night, chattering about what they had just seen and experienced.

Felix and I hung around after the last of the villagers had departed. I helped him take down the balloons.

“I didn’t actually know they were condoms,” he said, laughing. “Can you imagine these youths?”

We finished by scraping the expended wax bits from the candlelight ribbon off the floor. Outside it was raining heavily. We stood at the door, watching the large drops batter the car windows and turn the red earth into a shifting mass.

I asked Felix what it means to “do something,” and he said, “I often tell people, ‘You know, you don’t really need money to do the little things that you think are not really making some impact in people’s lives.’ But by the time you now do it a hundred times, two hundred times, and you put them together …” He trailed off. “All I know is that I’m actually doing this thing with my whole heart. I like what I’m doing. It’s giving me joy. The little money that is going into my pocket, I am satisfied with. My salary is five thousand naira. There’s a lot of my mates that are going home with one hundred thousand naira, working in better places. There’s a lot of my mates that work for one business or another making their millions, but I think this is what my heart appreciates. I have a calling. Maybe I could say that this is a calling because I think my mind, my whole spirit, is appeased with what I’m doing. I feel I am impacting on somebody’s life. I feel I am doing good. I’m in love with it.”

“You’re in love?” I was taken by his choice of words and the passion in his delivery, his insistence. His face was something different at that moment, his eyes wide, nostrils flared, his lips a thin, thoughtful line.

“Yes! You know when you are in love with a woman, you can actually do everything for that woman. You give the woman your time. You give the woman your life. You are patient. When you are in love with a woman, you will always want to do everything for the person. That is the way it is with me.”

BOOK: Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, a Country's Hope
12.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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