The heart of the 19th International AIDS Conference this week was not in the busy panels of experts discussing every aspect of the global pandemic, or in the boisterous daily protests that spilled from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, or even in the circus of noisy, colorful events promoting condoms and inexpensive AIDS drugs and native art.
It was on the sidelines, in the quiet moments when people from countries a world apart met and talked, really talked, about the common problems they face in their struggles to combat the disease.
There were moments such as the chance encounter between Rabih Maher, 32, an activist from Lebanon, and Zoryan Kis, 27, an AIDS program director from Ukraine, who had not seen each other since a conference in Rome several years ago. The two hugged and gushed over an appearance by Elton John, then turned serious when they compared notes on the persistence of anti-gay prejudice in both countries.
“We are still seen as immoral,” said Maher, noting that there are three legislative proposals to ban so-called homosexual propaganda in his country. “People who don’t like us are much more organized and well funded than we are,” chimed in Kis, who said conservative groups in Ukraine use the gay issue to distract the public from economic issues. “I feel angry, but being here gives me more energy to keep going.”
There were moments such as the brief conversation between several shy teenagers from Swaziland who are living with HIV and a motherly social worker from South Africa named Chatiwa Kotter, who stopped by their sponsors’ exhibit booth, curious to find out about their problems.
“Tell me, do you feel accepted in your society? Do your friends know about it?” she asked kindly. A Swazi girl in neat braids smiled politely. Three boys behind her looked expressionless behind very dark glasses. Chatiwa told them she had met several women from their country at the conference who were also living with HIV. “They were so positive and vibrant, “ she said. “It made me take a step back and rethink everything I thought about HIV people.”
And moments such as the eager exchange between Abhinav Singh, 25, of India and Antony Adero Olnemy, 23, of Kenya. Both had just finished speaking at a panel as fellows in the U.N. AIDS youth program. Despite their diverse backgrounds, they said they face similar social and cultural taboos in their efforts to promote AIDS awareness among high-risk teenage populations.
“We both have a passion for our work and we feel so much connection, because the problems are the same,” said Singh, as Olnemy nodded in agreement. Both young men said that despite modern political systems and national awareness of the AIDS threat, India and Kenya have strong cultural prohibitions against discussing sex, especially in rural areas. They also said that they are not taken seriously enough by adults in the anti-AIDS community.
“If we want to educate our youth, we need to be reaching out on Facebook and Twitter,” Singh said. Olnemy echoed his frustration. “The schools think if you teach sex education, youth will indulge in it,” he said. “We are not promoting sex. We are promoting safety.”
All week, as thousands of conference participants wandered among halls filled with booths, exhibits and discussion panels — a neutral zone far from home — they bumped into strangers with something in common, with whom they could talk freely and be themselves. This was especially true in the Global Village, an informal section open to the public.
In one corner, a woman from Uganda delivered a frank, detailed talk about female genital circumcision, while half a dozen men in the audience looked embarrassed but took copious notes. In another corner, an elegant transgendered dancer from Thailand posed with her arms around two giggling Liberian women in full tribal dress while a teacher from Puerto Rico took their photo.
Among the maze of booths set up by AIDS-related groups from Antigua to Zambia, conversations often began with abstract discussions of budgets, testing, access and prevalence rates. But inevitably, as the discussion deepened, issues of culture and tradition intruded. In many cases, people said that changing human belief and behavior is the most difficult problem they face.
Activists from both Jamaica and the Dominican Republic said spiritual beliefs in magic were a hindrance to AIDS education. “People may sacrifice a goat and spill its blood and think they’ll be cured,” said Nicomedes Castro, an AIDS council official from Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital. “Some people believe the myth that if you sleep with a virgin, it cures sexual diseases,” said Marlon Thompson, who works with a Caribbean anti-AIDS alliance. “Cultural attitudes are the hardest thing to break.”
Female delegates from several African countries said they faced common obstacles, including high female illiteracy rates and male dominance, in trying to educate rural women to protect themselves against AIDS.
“The problems of poverty and illiteracy unite us,” said Grace Luomo, 59, an activist from Uganda, as her friend Limota Goroso of Nigeria nodded in agreement. “Village women think HIV is like any other disease. We need to educate them, but using their own language and respecting their culture.”
She also said many men refuse to use condoms because it decreases sexual sensation. “They want to press the flesh,” said Goroso, laughing. “They think condoms are only for prostitutes.”
In a similar vein, activists from Zimbabwe and Guinea expressed concerns about the health risks of polygamy. Madeline Nube, a health official from Zimbabwe, said a major source of the spread of HIV is the common practice of heterosexual men having “multiple concurrent partners,” including married women who they wrongly believe are “safe” from the disease.
Nouhan Traore, a doctor from Guinea, said Muslim men in his country often have three to four wives. “If the man is infected, then all four women can be infected, too,” he said.
Despite these quietly shared concerns, the global spirit at the conference was far more upbeat than depressing. On Tuesday, when activists announced a march to the White House to demand lower-cost AIDS drugs, delegates from Argentina, Nigeria, France and New Guinea trotted and danced along New York Avenue NW. They waved scarves, rang cowbells and took turns holding a banner that declared, “We Can End AIDS.”