I am, without a doubt, the luckiest Afghan alive.
My work gives me the opportunity to travel around the world in many different countries. Some of them are countries I had never imagined myself in. For example, I never thought I’d be going to some beautiful places like Algeria, Uganda, or Yemen. When I first took up this job two years ago, I didn’t know what I had signed up for, and coming from a country like Afghanistan, I knew nothing would surprise me. Fortunately, I had lived and worked in different countries before taking up this job and I was ready to go just about anywhere.
I’m also very fortunate to have come across some incredible people during these visits and throughout my life in different parts of the world. Naturally curious and outgoing, I like to mix and mingle as much as I can and do my best to understand people and learn about their background. Initially, I wanted to write about my several trips to Iran because I strongly believe Iran is one of the most misrepresented countries in the media – even at the expense of being labeled as a “pro-Iranian Tajik from the north [of Afghanistan]” by other Afghans. Even making the last statement alone about writing on Iran is enough for nationalist Afghans to write-off my identity as an Afghan.
A few weeks ago, on my third trip to Uganda, I was speaking to the driver – let’s call him “Johnny” – who was dropping me off from the hotel to the office. We were talking about the living conditions of people in Uganda and the movement of refugees from neighboring DRC and Sudan into Uganda. For anyone who hasn’t been to Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, the traffic can be horrendous at times and it’s not hard to get stuck for a long stay in the car. This time around, getting stuck in traffic meant more time speaking to a locally raised man in his late 20’s who spoke clear, fluent English. The conversation took a turn to discussion about HIV and AIDS in Uganda. I asked Johnny if HIV/AIDS is as common in Uganda as in some other African countries. Without hesitation, he shared something very personal with me and blurted, “My father died of AIDS and two of my brothers are HIV positive!”.
Startled by his disclosure of something very personal, I told him I was sorry for his loss. There was a moment of awkward silence. I was thinking to myself, ‘should I stop right here? Maybe I went a little too far with my curiosity without even realizing I got too personal’. But I knew it was my chance to find out a little more about AIDS from someone who’s seen it first-hand. In case you’ve seen the 1995 TV film ‘Gia’ starring Angelina Jolie where she plays America’s first supermodel, there are specific physical signs of someone dying of AIDS. I asked Johnny if he didn’t mind me asking a personal question on his father’s physical condition in final stages of AIDS and he amicably welcomed my inquisitiveness. So I went ahead and asked him what the physical signs of someone dying of AIDS are?
The first thing he said was that people with AIDS lose a lot of weight. He spoke of how his father constantly lost weight regardless of how much he ate. The other thing he said was that people with AIDS quickly lose hair if you simply run your fingers through. Remembering how Angelina Jolie’s character died (apologies for the spoiler in case you haven’t seen this movie), I confirmed if there are red patches on the skin of someone in advanced stages of AIDS. Not only did he confirm the red patches, he went further to explain that his father’s flesh had pretty much “disintegrated” when he died. He was saying that “the skin of people with AIDS becomes so dry it almost looks like leather”.
We started talking about why, even after so much public knowledge and awareness about HIV/AIDS in Africa, people in Uganda are still heavily exposed to it? Johnny’s response was merely a description of the promiscuous habits of the youth. He was giving me an example by saying that, “if I have a girlfriend, she would have three other boyfriends, each of whom have five to six other girlfriends”. What he was really describing was not a committed monogamous relationship but rather behavior of promiscuous youth, which from my experience in living in Muslim countries most of my life, is a common habitual practice even in Islamic countries. Johnny was saying that he practices safe sex but after getting to know someone for a while, it is common to stop using protection. I went on to ask him if it’s common, in that case, for people to get tested frequently for HIV too? His response, “no, no, no… people are afraid to get tested. In Uganda, if someone gets tested and they find out they are HIV+, the next day, you will find them dead” –referring to cultural stigma attached to the stereotype of people living with HIV/AIDS and it being a death penalty, and the suicides that follow after someone finds out if they are HIV+. It was obvious to me that his fear of not knowing his own HIV status was better than knowing when he confirmed he did not want to get tested for HIV. By the time we had reached our offices in Kampala, Johnny had given me detailed information about first-hand experience in losing someone to AIDS. I shook his hand, thanked him for the interesting discussion and started my work day.
The Need for Sexual Education of Sexual Beings with Sexual Rights
My conversation with Johnny about HIV/AIDS reminded me of my psychology class back in my university about twelve years ago when my group and I did our project on HIV/AIDS patients in United Arab Emirates – a project we later found to be very difficult to complete due to sensitivity of the subject in United Arab Emirates and the secrecy of this subject being taboo. Back in 2002, my psychology professor was telling us that while many people think HIV/AIDS is spread mainly because of homosexual men, it was not true. According to some studies she was referring to at the time, most of the cases of HIV spread is a result of straight men having extramarital affairs. Of course this is a highly debatable subject and since 1990’s, people are educated enough about HIV/AIDS to know that it is not a “gay disease” as it was the widely held belief back in the 1980’s – at least, we would like to think so. More recently when I was living in Australia, I was shocked to learn that one of my housemates’ friends who came from the same region of the world I came from, was not aware that being HIV+ can be a result of unprotected sex. He was one of the people still under the impression that “AIDS is a disease of gay men”. It was a blatant reminder of how much, even in a post-millennium world, some people are in dire need of sexual education and no religion or faith should stop us from becoming educated on sex at any given stage in life.
Having lived in Saudi Arabia for some time, I recall that our teachers in school used to skip the sexual reproduction chapters in our biology books and at the most, only briefly taught about sex in early grades of 6 /7 (age group 11-12 years old), and details of sexual education only came through later in grades 8/9 (age group 13-14 years old). This meant that much of sexual education was left for self-discovery, leading to myths and misunderstandings about sex while growing up.
As for “Johnny”, I hope he lives a long, healthy and happy life.
So what made me write this particular blog about my trip to Uganda? Well, it was a little push from someone I came across with online on Twitter. Even as a self-motivated person, I sometimes need a little push from someone to go the extra bit to do that little extra work on top of all that I already do. I want to thank Huffington Post blogger E Nina Rothe for giving me that extra push to go ahead and finally write my first blog on a work trip. You can follow Nina on twitter: @ENinaRothe and read all about her own incredible journey around the world on her website at http://www.theajnabee.com/