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Archive for November, 2007

I am a fast reader. It is rare for me to have trouble finishing a library book before it is due. Last night I stayed up reading Helen Epstein’s illuminating and troubling book, The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS. It was worth the afternoon drowsiness today.

This book required the entire two week loan period to do it justice, not only because Epstein laid bare the fragility of humankind in ways that were hard to digest, but also because I began reading with the mistaken belief that I already understood her subject matter. It is time consuming to give up preconceived notions.

In late 1999, I was the mother of a two year old and was in the throes of a long process of growing into the person I hoped my children would look up to (I am not there yet, so many years later, I am afraid). In this period of discovery and questioning, I joined the peace and justice committee at the church my family attended. Not long after, I joined others in my community to help a Kosovar refugee family move into an apartment, learn English, find jobs and schools, and start over.

Becoming involved personally, getting to know someone from another culture, and seeing firsthand what a family of limited means faced as they tried to provide for their children opened my eyes and my mind. I began to learn about social justice and human rights issues.

As the new millennium approached, the peace and justice committee presented an issue I’d never considered before: international debt. I discovered the Jubilee movement, and began to write letters asking US and world leaders to forgive the debts of the most impoverished nations of the world, so that they, like the refugee family I got to know, could provide for themselves.

When I learned about debt, and as my family became interested in the work of nonprofits working in partnership with the poor (such as Habitat for Humanity International, and Heifer Project), I started learning about the developing world. And at the turn of the century, one of the developing world’s greatest challenges, and among the topics most frequently in the news here in the West, was AIDS.

While I was learning and growing with my young family, Helen Epstein was on the front lines of the fight against AIDS. She worked as a research biologist in Uganda, and later returned to Africa many times to observe and report on the AIDS epidemic, and to answer her own questions about how and why the epidemic occurred, why AIDS impacts countries differently, and in what ways the response on the part of both African and Western governments and aid organizations has sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed. In many cases she was asking things other people weren’t, discovering things for herself, searching for her own answers. I recognize this curiosity — Epstein is a fellow life learner.

The Invisible Cure is a challenging read, in large part because Epstein is such an unbiased observer, which forced me to examine my own views as I read. As I became more involved in AIDS advocacy during the past few years, I thought I had read fairly widely about the AIDS crisis. I attended the Global AIDS Alliance’s action conference in 2003, which featured many inspiring and informative speakers, including Millie Katana, a prominent advocate for Uganda’s AIDS victims and a member of the board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, and Stephen Lewis, then the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Conference attendees participated in a lobby day on Capitol Hill regarding AIDS relief. Unable to stop thinking about what I’d learned, and with images of mothers like me trying to deal with the epidemic keeping me up at night, I started Southwest Georgians United Against AIDS (now defunct, and honestly, never terribly effective) in order to work on AIDS advocacy. The president of a local AIDS nonprofit in Georgia, which assists people living with HIV/AIDS in ten counties, asked me to join the board, and to spearhead that group’s effort to help a small group of AIDS orphans in a rural area of Uganda.

So I think of myself as a person who is fairly informed about global AIDS, and I opened Epstein’s book feeling like I knew what to expect. Within the first fifty pages I was amazed. Not only by the information Epstein provides on the possible origins of AIDS, the spread of the epidemic, the impact on various countries and within certain populations, and the response. But also by the fact that despite reading a wide variety of mainstream media and specialist literature, I was still misinformed on many aspects of the AIDS epidemic.

For example, I knew that abstinence has been the cornerstone of the Ugandan prevention program during the past several years. I did not realize that Uganda experienced a huge drop in HIV infections under a campaign called “zero grazing,” which did not push abstinence, but rather faithfulness, and that some of the scientific data from Uganda on the success of “zero grazing” has been suppressed or ignored by both pro-condom and pro-abstinence groups, including some of the most prominent world bodies, while ordinary Ugandans have suffered.

Despite the fact that I am a voracious reader, and my daily news intake usually includes two or more NPR programs, a daily newspaper, at least the lead stories from the NY Times online, and both weekly and monthly news magazines of various viewpoints, I had no idea the Global Fund has withdrawn grant money in some countries due to corruption charges and that it’s own leader stepped down amid mismanagement allegations — this is the fund that is touted as the transparent, grassroots, multilateral, effective way to fight AIDS. While I’m glad the anti-corruption mechanisms are working, I am distressed to think of how much money and time have been wasted while people die.

I also did not realize the extent to which the Western response to AIDS is frequently self-benefiting. For example, American aid programs spend large sums of donor money (in the case of USAID and PEPFAR, the government’s programs, that means taxpayers’ money) in America before anyone ever sets foot in Africa. Obviously, there are overhead costs to any program, but Epstein’s examples are stark, clear, and painful.

The Invisible Cure also reinforced my belief in the importance of local community decision making and ownership in any development work. My family prefers to support nonprofits who work with their constituents to find out what they need, rather than dictating one size fits all solutions to them. If some of the most influential forces in global public health could overlook their own interests and understand Uganda’s earlier AIDS prevention and home care successes, how many lives could be saved?

The most refreshing aspect of this important book is Epstein’s fairness. She exposes the problems with liberal, conservative, religious, secular, private and public aid. No one is spared her careful, considerate examination. Neither does she appear to target any one group or point of view for criticism — refreshing, when many activists’ writings simply blast anything to do with whomever they view as the opposition, without really going into the nuances of the points they make. If you’re tired of all the shouting in the public arena and want to read a measured, thoughtful book, this is it.

The one type of program Epstein praises repeatedly in The Invisible Cure are the small, very grassroots, often barely recognized community organizations which work to prevent AIDS and care for its victims. Her book has inspired me to seek out these local organizations somehow, and to channel more of my family’s giving budget towards this type of direct work.

One such nonprofit, a partnership between an African woman who knows her community and its needs and an American who wants to help her fund orphan care, is Zienzele Foundation. Although my motivation for buying a basket from this organization at an alternative giving fair a few weeks ago was partially to assuage my own feelings of guilt — I live in comfort, while across the world, by an accident of birth, people suffer needlessly — I am confident that my purchase truly funds an actual grassroots program, and that there are real people both helping and being helped.

As fragile humans, that is ultimately all we can do in the face of the AIDS crisis or any other overwhelming problem — help each other, as best we can. Thanks to Ms. Epstein’s excellent book, more help is possible for Africa’s HIV/AIDS victims and their families and communities.

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As I mentioned in my last post, the bookconscious household spent October packing up, moving, and unpacking. We are so happy to be mostly settled in our new (to us) home, back in New Hampshire. I noodled around a couple of books while in transit — I read most of Out of Africa and some of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Madness.

My mental and physical chaos weren’t conducive to concentrating for long periods of time. And I was having a hard time keeping track of where various books were — we packed you-don’t-want-to-know-how-many book boxes. When I’d reached the zenith of my move discomfort level, on the very last weekend in our small town in Georgia, I went to the library book sale.

We didn’t really need any more books to pack, but I am a book junkie: I absolutely love the little jolt of pleasure that comes with finding a treasure among the trash at book sales. I found a few potential gems, including one book that fit both my state of mind and my need for portable reading material I could slip in my bag: The War Prayer by Mark Twain.

My edition is illustrated by John Groth. Twain wrote the piece and submitted it to Harper’s Bazaar in 1905, when he had become disillusioned by the Spanish American War, specifically the war in the Philippines. The magazine rejected it, and because he had an exclusive contract, he couldn’t sell it elsewhere. He told a friend in a letter, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.” His prediction was accurate, and the prayer remained in his papers until 1923, when it came out in a posthumous collection.

The War Prayer is a short piece, describing the scene in a small town church, where the patriotic congregation has gathered to send their young men off to battle. The pastor prays that they will be successful, imploring God to:” . . . make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory –”

What struck me as I read this first part was that Twain could have been describing a church service in America today, sending a unit off to Iraq or Afghanistan. We’re a long way from 1905, yet some of us are still praying for the destruction of our enemies and we are still sending young people off to battle. Depressing that the pastor’s words, written in another century, could fit the current situation so easily:

“Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

Haven’t you seen or heard the same sort of rhetoric in the past few years? I know we did in rural south Georgia. An alarming (although happily, dwindling) number of people believe that God blesses our troops and is on America’s “side” because as the President insists, “our cause is just.”

Never mind that this is exactly the sort of thing we decry in Islamic extremist propaganda. Ministers and other leaders of churches in our little town either stayed quiet or chimed in with the patriotic blather in 2003. In fact, I ruffled some feathers at our Episcopalian parish by asking why we weren’t discussing, as followers of the Prince of Peace, the moral problems with pre-emptive war.

Brief aside: one reason I love my new neighborhood is that there appears to be, based on an unscientific survey of yard signs, a healthy dose of dissent here, and also, not everyone agrees with each other (yes, I am actually glad for people who don’t necessarily share my own views, as much as I am glad for those who do. A spectrum of ideas is the best thing for developing clear thinking, I believe).

My kids have asked how people who claim God’s approval know what God thinks, and I tell them, honestly, that in my opinion, they don’t know, they believe they know. I particularly struggled with explaining the “just cause” idea when it came up — even a kid can see that when it comes to the Iraq war, it’s a simple case of cognitive dissonance, or, “I chose this, so it is the best choice.” Stay the course.

Another brief aside: today was “Issues in Contemporary Science” at our house — with a nod to a fellow unschooler in Atlanta who I piked the name from, this means that the kids and I sit around the computer and read articles from Science News for Kids and the Science section of the New York Times, which comes out on Tuesdays.

Nothing like sitting in your jammies (the kids), drinking coffee (me), and discussing the latest happenings in the world of science, such as a study that explores cognitive dissonance in monkeys and 4 year old children., suggesting the instinct to believe our choices are superior to the alternatives is primal. When I sat down to write about The War Prayer, the connection came to me. Autodidactism is contagious.

My son was only 9 when America invaded Iraq. He asked our rector at the time whether soldiers who killed someone would go to hell, since he’d learned in Sunday school, “Thou shalt not kill.” When the rector shuffled a bit and said we couldn’t really know but that he felt probably not, my innocent child asked in a skeptical voice whether killing was really wrong, then, after all. Also, he asked me why we weren’t looking for the bad guys who flew those planes into buildings anymore, and what Iraq had to do with anything.

The kid’s a genius, and a lot of adult thinkers have come around to his way of seeing things. Twain was writing about the blinding patriotism that accompanies the rationalization process in wartime, and he really nailed it. When you read the second half of The War Prayer, you see the unpleasant, unavoidable truth. It’s not that the current war is a terrible disaster; all war is a terrible disaster.

As Twain’s minister wraps up, a stranger enters the church and begins his own prayer. He claims to be sent by God to speak the “unspoken” other half of the prayer. He tells the congregation they must “pause and think” about what they’ve asked. And then he lets loose with the flip side of praying for their own young men to enjoy a valiant victory in battle: the pain, suffering, destruction, and loss their answered prayers will cause for people just like them who are the families and friends of the young men on the other side of the fight.

Twain doesn’t mince words, and the second part of the prayer is tough to face: “help us to turn them out roofless with their little children,” and “help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells.” You can read for yourself what the congregation thinks of the strange visitor.

I’d like to send the link to all the presidential candidates, to all of Congress. No need to send it to the President, whose thinking is either the best example of cognitive dissonance I’ve ever heard or has been spun that way by his handlers. The thing is, I’m not sure any of them would act on it, just as the people in the church in The War Prayer are unmoved. Twain wrote his prayer before the worst wars of the twentieth century. It was published prior to the development of nuclear weapons. Generations of people have read it.

And we’re stuck, still rationalizing our bellicose behavior, still praying for victory. What is God thinking? Sometimes I think we’ll be sorry to find out. But I’m heartened that my children can clearly see the moral consequences of war regardless of the actions of the adult leaders in their world. Raising them to resist and respond to cognitive dissonance is at least one part of my own war prayer.

Teaching them that they can be the stranger in the room if they have the courage to keep asking questions is another part. On that note, I will email the link to my elected representatives after all. We’ll talk about it tomorrow during “Active Citizenry 101,” also known as reading and discussing the Concord Monitor over breakfast.

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