Hello from Senegal! I’m now halfway through a two-week stay in Dakar, before moving on to Zimbabwe. Senegal is a totally different experience, and from my perspective, one of the most powerful things it has to offer is a vision of Africa without AIDS. As many of you already know, roughly a quarter of Zimbabwe’s population is infected with HIV/AIDS, whereas the prevalence rate in Senegal is only 1%.
I’ve said in previous posts that HIV/AIDS has come to affect literally ever thread of Zimbabwe’s social fabric. But what does this really mean? Eating dinner in Senegal with my host family, the Thioubs, has had the very unexpected effect of providing a sharp contrast to my experiences in Zimbabwe, calling attention to what would otherwise remain an “invisible” effect of HIV/AIDS on families.
In Senegal, the Thioub family shares every meal together, gathered around two large platters from which each person eats his or her portion. One platter is reserved for adults, while another is for children and adolescents. During mealtimes, adult family members include grandparents Papa Maisa and Mère Mati, joined by their son, daughter, son-in-law, and a nephew. Six or seven of their grandchildren share a separate platter. For every child seated around one communal plate, there is an adult seated at the other; someone who provides for, teases, feeds, encourages, yells at, loves, and sees their reflection and future as vested in that child.
In comparison, Zimbabwean families are under constant stress, forced to continually regroup and reform in response to HIVAIDS. As they lose working adults and caregivers, they simultaneously acquire an ever-growing number of orphaned children, often leaving a single adult wholly responsible for several children. The typical new Zimbabwean “family” gathered together for a meal might be made up of two sisters fending for themselves, or of elderly grandparents caring for multiple orphans. In one notable case, I’ve dined with a family raising fifteen children, under the care of one elderly grandfather and his adult daughter. As many families struggle to cope with the changes HIV/AIDS has wrought in the family structure, they acquire a new sense of “normalcy” that is highly off-balance, and develop coping strategies which show a high degree of trauma and post-traumatic stress. In the worst cases, children may be largely ignored by adults who are overwhelmed emotionally, financially, and physically by HIV/AIDS.
In Tariro’s work with Zimbabwe families caring for orphaned children, we see the everyday dedication and resilience that enables families to survive despite these huge challenges. But I wonder: what would Zimbabwe be like if all of those who have died from HIV/AIDS were still gathered around the communal platter?
Visiting Senegal has helped me to recognize that I don’t want to settle for Zimbabwe’s new “normal.” Instead, I believe our vision for Zimbabwe must continue to be a vision of an Africa without AIDS. But we can only do this if we are willing to commit to building relationships, to understanding the communities we work with, and to investing in women and girls. The vision should be encompassing. We must believe we can achieve an Africa without AIDS. But the only way to work toward the goal is through concrete steps, and one of the most important of those steps is empowering and educating women and girls.
I’m excited to land in Zimbabwe next Monday, so stay tuned for a post at the end of next week!