On a dry South African winter day in Soweto, the dust I kick up with my boots covers my skin and creates a gritty film in the back of my mouth, choking me and grating on my molars. 
It’s impossible to understand this corner of Africa without understanding its dust. The dust has a history and like Soweto – it is history: living and breathing, kicked up anew each day, floating into the sky, burying the dead. The dust remembers the struggle against apartheid and observes today’s struggles against poverty, AIDS and more inequality. The dust witnesses exhilarations of freedom and the joyous steps of children dancing in the streets.
The dust covers everything in the treeless township outside Johannesburg, sweeping up the people in its clouds. This place has a deep history since its founding in 1931, and later when Black South Africans were forced to live there under the apartheid regime’s Group Areas Act from the late 50s to the end of apartheid in 1994. The land in Soweto is scorched and painfully brown, with little evidence of South Africa’s stunning flora or fauna.
Quiet roads in Soweto are stained with schoolchildren’s blood, even though it has long since blown away with the red, chalky dust. In 1976, schoolchildren no longer wanted to be taught the oppressor’s language of Afrikaans and led uprisings that were met with intense violence from the police. Armed with only stones, the children were shot and many were killed in the streets. Today Soweto is a culturally vibrant relic of yesterday’s struggles, a place ironic in its beauty. Its many neighborhoods hold almost 7 million people, most are very poor, and AIDS ravages the land.
 Soweto could be a microcosm for AIDS in all of Africa and the rest of the Global South. There is little to no access to treatment, it affects women at a greater rate and paralyzing silence still surrounds the four letters. In a township where twenty-something’s attend funerals on the weekends like American’s do movie theatres, Soweto breathes AIDS even if it can\’t bear to speak of it.
It’s been said before and these words are not only mine. The way our generation handles this pandemic will define us all. With an estimated 35 to 42 million people living with HIV/AIDS around the world, it is the global catastrophe, tragedy and test of our time. For those of us sitting idly on this privileged soil, most with access to medical care, nutrition, education and control of our reproductivity, this is our test. Are we willing to let generations of people around the world – from Mumbai to Botswana to Kiev to Soweto – die at our hands? Many could say that this not our problem, or worse that there\’s nothing we can do. But I beg you to rethink those defeatist excuses. We can and we must address AIDS in our human family. Our lives and our souls will be judged for it.
The facts are simple. If the wealthy Western world wanted to, it could quell the pandemic in every corner of the world with less effort and resources than it took to declare war in Iraq. The answers to the AIDS pandemic are not as simple. Yes, everyone deserves inexpensive access to anti-retrovirals and they must be distributed at Godspeed. But poverty is inextricably linked with HIV and people need adequate nutrition to take the drugs. Sexism also breeds AIDS. Women make up two-thirds of the world\’s newly infected and this also applies to American women who are getting infected at higher rates than men. Unless women are no longer sexually compromised because of rape, poverty, lack of access to land and subsequent prositition and exploitation – we are not safe. No one is safe, and let that be the great lesson of this disease.
What we must do is look in the mirror, all of us, and ask if we are prepared to let our world slip away when we could have helped. Our very humanity is at stake.
When I was in Soweto, our group paired up with families of AIDS orphans and brought them clothing, food and even vanities from America. I gave one of my children, 11-year-old Nokuthula, a striped knit poncho and a hoodie with \”Detroit\” across the chest. She and her siblings were ecstatic that we came to see them and wanted to spend time with them. As orphans left so vulnerable by the disease, a lot of what they lack is hope.
In my desperate attempt to bring them any joy, I found that all I ever received from them was joy. They danced for me, I chased my 3-year-old screaming \”Ntando!,\” with the others laughing at his adorable disobedience. Unless these four children receive care from outside NGOs and charities, they may not get by for much longer. Right now they benefit from a warm and tenacious woman named Carol Dyantyi and her organization, the Ikageng Itireleng AIDS Ministry based in Soweto. Dyantyi is the surrogate mother to over 500 children in 180 homes throughout Soweto. Truly a phenomenal woman, Dyantyi redefines who deserves a Nobel Peace Prize in today\’s time.
When I had to leave my kids that day, I told them all they were beautiful, valuable children that would go far in life. I told Ntando to behave like a good boy, Sanele to take care of his sisters, and the precarious Ntokozo to stay away from too many boys. When I went to say goodbye to the withdrawn and intelligent oldest, Nokuthula, I told her she was smart and that she should keep working in school because she wants to be a doctor. I told her she could do anything she wanted to, and although her life was rough, she would make it out safe and healthy.
I left that day in tears, hoping I did not just lie to her.
South Africa, and Soweto especially, changed me in ways I cannot explain. From those dusty roads I learned so many lessons about freedom, pain and joy. But most of all I learned that we should never stop learning. And that we must use all these lessons to create the change we wish to see. I believe our greatest gift as humans is the power we have to love one another, and that this love is the only thing we need to change ourselves and our world. But do we love ourselves enough to save our distant, and soon not-so-distant, brothers and sisters? This will be our test. I hope you\’ll join me in the great struggle to see this through.
Get active, not passive! Pressure politicians to support NON abstinence-only prevention and funding, volunteer your time and keep the pandemic a priority in all your activism and future work. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, journalists, economists, academics and so on – you can help!
TBG is having a benefit concert for the Starfish Organization, one of the charities that helps Ikageng Itireleng and AIDS orphans around Southern Africa, on April 22. Click here for details.