Thursday, July 22, 2004

A life measured in ounces

The last part of the LA Times series on living with pennies concerns AIDS. Much ink has already been spent on the issue, but these are issues serious enough that constant reminders are welcome. A life measured in ounces

A bottle of Dark and Lovely hair gel in hand, Kassim Issa pushes his withered body down a dirt path through Nairobi's biggest slum, peddling a few ounces at Mama Washington's and other tumbledown salons.

For Issa, Dark and Lovely is life. The 20-cent profit from one bottle can pay for an injection to dull the chronic pain of AIDS. Two bottles can pay for a hospital visit. And selling 10 means he can afford a chest X-ray.

"I am fighting every day to stay alive," Issa said. "Every day I live, I win."

Winning means another day of difficult choices — a dinner of bitter greens or medication. Issa can buy one or the other, but usually not both. Without the right food and drugs, it's hard to find a better job. On top of that, drugs that make him stronger also make him hungry for food he can't afford.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where half the people survive on less than a dollar a day, life is a struggle for food, clothing and shelter. Issa and 28 million other Africans stricken with HIV and AIDS face the extra burden of finding and paying for treatment.

Nearly 7% of Kenya's 32 million people are living with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. The epidemic claims the lives of 700 Kenyans each day. Across the continent, 3 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses last year. The U.N. reported last week that life expectancy has dropped as low as 33 years in some African countries, largely due to AIDS.

The disease has decimated the ranks of teachers and shuttered schools. It has wiped out subsistence farmers, slashing food production. It has taken mothers and fathers, creating millions of orphans.

Years ago, when Issa was healthy, he brought home about $100 a month from his job selling Dark and Lovely shampoos, gels and hair straighteners.

The salesman also brought home HIV. Three generations have suffered because of it. His wife is dead. Because he cannot care for his 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, the children live with their grandmother in a distant village.

For Issa, the disease created its own twisted logic of survival. To qualify for free doses of the most important medication — antiretroviral drugs — from the aid group Doctors Without Borders, Issa needed his immune system cell count to drop to dangerous levels.

He prayed to get sicker. In a few weeks, he lost 40 pounds from his slender 6-foot-2 frame. His cell count plummeted. His prayers were answered.

"I could live a little longer," he said.
Some comments about this series and others of its ilk. The stylistic criticism is that the writing can be a little breathy at times and perhaps there's the occasional sense of the exotic - of that poor, deprived other. There is always that tempation for the journalist, even the third world journalist, to fall on slightly overripe prose.

Having spent a large part of my childhood in newsrooms, I can remember my mother constantly arguing with her journalist colleagues about this issue of tone, and facile characterization; she worked hard to make sure that reporting and editorial line went deeper than surface. Suprisingly this seemed to be more of an issue at the BBC (Focus on Africa) than back at the Daily Graphic in Accra. Perhaps its also a matter of medium - tv trumps radio which trumps print; the cinematic is the medium of our time even with the onset of the web. There are trade-offs between spending the time to capture the complexity of a story as opposed to drawing broad strokes with an vivid image. Even for serious writers, mastery of the approriate tone is a difficult thing.

And yet, this has been a great series, well researched (see the piece about clothing especially). It is indeed a testament to humanity's adaptability that we can eke out a living on pennies, that we can live in objective squalor and cramped conditions, hustling and strategizing even on an empty stomach, dressed in second-hand clothes and still try to find the wherewithal to send our children to school.

In much the same way I don't begrudge Spielberg filming Amistad or Barbara Kingsolver writing about Congo in The Poisonwood Bible. The may miss the nuances of the issues, they may simplify things for reasons of mass entertainment. But at least they are writing about our stories; they could be concerning themselves with say the problems of annorexia rather than the all too common starvation, or the legacy of slavery. As the series illuminates, we just have a lot hurdles to overcome, and a lot of competion. In any case, African voices will get their hearing eventually; our stories are being written daily - I know I'm writing mine.

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