Get the little ones ready for school, clean the house, go to work and make sure there’s food on the table – a typical day for a soccer mom, right?
Not in Sub-Saharan Africa, where “soccer mom” isn’t even a term in their cultural rhetoric. Instead this is the life of a 13- or 14-year-old child who has lost his parents to AIDS and has become head of the household at a drastically young age. While the average 13-year-old American child is worrying about which videogame to play next, a child in South Africa is concerning himself with how to feed his younger brothers and sisters.
[steve] This heart-wrenching picture became a common visual for 2003 MSU graduate Steve Serling during the study abroad trip, Race Relations in South Africa. He and other students worked in collaboration with God’s Golden Acre, an HIV/AIDS orphanage. “I experienced a range of emotions,” Serling said. “You read it in a book but then to see it with your own eyes makes the book seem like fiction. When you’re holding a kid who’s three and still not potty trained… they look so innocent and then you think that they might not be alive the next year.”
“I felt hurt, frustration, but also hope. Hope that we can create positive change,” Serling said of his experience on his study abroad trip.
The program was organized by Jeanne Gazel, professor and director of Multi-Racial Unity Living Experience (MRULE), but she says it was pressure from students in MRULE at MSU that got the program off the ground. Serling described the work he and the other participants did while in Africa with a tone of great accomplishment. MRULE raised funds and built two homes close to the orphanage in the village. He explained there was a great need for new homes in this village because in many of the households the parents were unable to work or were missing from the picture entirely and the houses had begun crumbling.
“[Homes] were unfit for living by American standards. So we built new ones in the name of MSU,” Serling said. Other tasks they did in the two weeks at this orphanage included caring for children, playing outside, changing diapers, helping them learn English, and making sure they had the necessary uniform and shoes for school.
Race Relations in South Africa incorporated a “service learning project” with the typical classroom education. “I am not content with only cognitive learning,” Gazel said. “I wanted them to learn through serving the community. I didn’t want us to just be gawking at them; I want them to be offering their talents and privileges with whatever is needed.”
Most of this action was inspired by the overwhelming need in South Africa and the high concentration of AIDS victims. This nation has a tumultuous history. Many of the troubles began in 1913 when the Native Land Act was enacted. This created an authority in which black South Africans, who made up 85 percent of the population were subjugated by whites, making up 13 percent. In even simpler terminology, whites ruled over blacks and took over their land.
From 1948 until 1994, South Africa was under the rule of an apartheid regime. Apartheid is a form of strict racial coding that created laws of what inhabitants could and could not do based on their race. A similar form of rule was America’s segregation, except to the utmost extreme.
When apartheid fell, the National Unity Government took over in 1994 until South Africa could host their first democratic elections. On May 10, 1994, South African civil rights activist Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first democratically chosen leader of South Africa. During these struggles, anti-apartheid refugees escaped jail and went into hiding in foreign countries. It was these refugees that helped end the civil unrest by creating an international isolation of South Africa.
[map] This is where AIDS comes back into the picture for South Africa. Because international businesses put economic sanctions on the nation, the rigid regime was brought down. Along with economic goods and services, this isolation kept AIDS out of the country. In a sense AIDS is spread quickly through commerce, as many the flow of goods and people can lead to increased infections.
Due to the closed ports, low availability of blood transfusions and intravenous drugs, AIDS wasn’t spreading rapidly in South Africa. But in the 1980s and ’90s, Uganda’s AIDS cases were exploding. Once the apartheid regime fell and the ports were opened, AIDS in South Africa spread like wildfire.
South Africa’s new leaders essentially had to rebuild an entire country. There were many areas of concern, including generations of uneducated people, insufficient healthcare and a weak economy. This meant HIV/AIDS did not get their full attention. It is hard to know for sure, but estimated numbers suggest the infection rate was 20-25 percent in South Africa in the late 1990s. “Forty million people have died in the last 15 years from this and we’re not curbing that,” Gazel said. “It’s not only in Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s now in Asia and many other countries.”
Gazel, who has experience speaking with South African women explained some of the cultural reasons for the AIDS crisis. “It is a very difficult concept – that you can spread a deadly disease through sex,” Gazel said. “They see sex as life-giving, an expression of manhood and womanhood. [Sex] isn’t talked about. It’s a thing you do. It’s a part of life. HIV education is slow to take hold. The biggest transmitter is heterosexual intercourse.”
Not only has the hush-hush view of sex contributed to the spread of this disease, but gender inequality plays a huge role. In many of the villages, girls drop out of school once they reach the equivalent of 8th grade in the United States and they stay home to help or may try to find work.
“You walk through these townships that people live in because they can’t afford more privacy or the ability to fend people off,” Gazel said. “People are everywhere. Three shacks could house 20 people. This creates a good sense of community, but the downside is that it breeds behaviors that are encouraging of the virus spread.”
Gazel said “roaming boys” are men in the villages that express love for the local girls. After this exchange of emotions, the man expects sexual intercourse as the next step in the relationship. “For the amount of sex going on, there is nowhere near the education needed. The girl gets pregnant, and then she is stuck there,” Gazel said.
The sister of Gazel’s 25-year-old adopted daughter in South Africa dropped out of school in 10th grade and is not allowed to look for work because the only form of employment for young girls is prostitution. But even if a wise mother says her daughter can’t go out of the house, girls can still get pregnant because of the roaming neighborhood boys and simply not knowing how to protect themselves. “You have to look at the way women are treated. Women cannot refuse a man. They can’t make the man use a condom,” she said.
Another cause of the spread of this disease in Africa is the government’s actions, or lack thereof. “…[T]he government only cares about prevention,” Serling said. “There are no treatment programs. People feel that if they get tested, it is a death penalty. The government doesn’t provide treatment. There is a stigma to testing so people still have sexual intercourse without getting tested.” Because there is a lack of education on the issues, misconceptions are abundant in many countries. “I have heard South African students say that if you have sex with a virgin, that’ll cure AIDS,” Serling said.
Lisa Robinson, a Peace Corps Recruiter at MSU, said one of the misconceptions she has heard personally and through other Peace Corps volunteers is that women believe if they are on birth control they cannot contract AIDS. She said many also believe they can get it from sitting next to someone, using the same toilet seat or through sweat and playing sports.
MSU currently has 72 Peace Corps volunteers overseas, three are health volunteers. “Peace Corps expects you to deal with AIDS no matter what your mission is. Even as an English teacher I had to deal with it,” Robinson said. MSU’s study abroad program and the Peace Corps are offered alongside courses and expeditions to Africa through the African Studies Center to inform the university community of the AIDS epidemic.
Sociology professor and Director of the African Studies Center David Wiley said MSU has the largest African curriculum in the United States and also offers more African languages than any other university. MSU has large amounts of research, grant projects and PhD dissertations written on Africa. Our university also offers more study abroad programs to Africa than any other university. Wiley said that a couple hundred MSU students and faculty travel to Africa, depending on the projects, a year.
[AIDS] “Historically, we are more linked to Africa than any place else,” Wiley said, citing that 12 to 13 percent of Americans came to the U.S. from Africa, and one-fourth of our oil comes from the continent. “We made a mess during the Cold War; we put the military power in the hands of dictators. The U.S. is the largest arms exporter to Africa and that is the last thing they need.”
When it comes to our relations with the U.S. Wiley believes, “we should clean up after ourselves.”
“We need Africa; they are a source of so many goods,” Wiley said. “We need them to be healthy. If they are in turmoil we can’t get what we need. Lots of African poverty is from the Cold War. Women become sex workers and people have sex crimes. We helped create those conditions and we’ve got to clean up our own mess.”
“We have to realize Africa is part of the world. Regardless if we think we can live in our own little bubble in East Lansing, there are numerous people dying [in Africa] and it is going to affect people around the world,” Serling said. “The world needs to wake up. We have to come together to combat HIV/AIDS. It’s a scary disease, but people need to know they can live with HIV/AIDS. It’s not a death penalty. We have to find a common humanity and figure it out together.”
Between 1997 and 2002, according to a new report from Stats SA, South Africa’s official statistics agency, the number of recorded deaths in the 20 to 45 age group more than doubled, from a little over 100,000 to more than 200,000, many of the lives claimed by AIDS. We can no longer sit idly by. While we are wondering about who will win the next sports game, someone in South Africa is wondering if she will see another sunrise.

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