Little Mr Fear and little Ms Stigma – our HIV Story

2 11 2010

This is not the right story. This is not the story we thought we were in and it’s not the story we wanted to tell. Our HIV story is telling itself in ways we hoped it wouldn’t. It has been a constant struggle getting access to schools to talk about HIV/AIDS but we have kept trying and have, generally had some success. We work hard to advocate for HIV/AIDS issues – our magic letter and our t-shirts help considerably with this. Undoubtedly there is much misunderstanding about the disease and a great amount of personal distancing from it. HIV is clearly associated with ‘sinful’ activities in this region, such as sex outside marriage (which if not illegal is totally taboo) and narcotics (which it very much is in Iran).  This makes it a hard disease to talk about and even harder to get people to engage with a more companionate and complex consideration of the issues surrounding transmission and protection.  This has been brought home to us in Dubai – where we have had a nasty encounter with little Mr Fear and little Ms Stigma.

There are a swarm of International Schools and local schools in Dubai – and we contacted a good slice of them. We emailed, we rang, we emailed again… only two replied. One to say no, one to say maybe. We clung tight to our maybe and were excited when they confirmed an hour session with 300 students! But the day before they asked to see our material .. we sent it and they changed their mind – because one of our supporting video clips gives an example of a man who contracted HIV by having sex, without a condom, to a girl he is not married to. It seems it is ok to mention HIV but not to talk about transmission or prevention. Clearly many of the teachers want to engage with the issues but are being blocked from doing so by the shadowy haze of little Mr Fear at management level. This is sad and should be a major concern for this country – international agencies are growing increasingly concerned about the regions inability to engage with this disease. Worryingly there is a lack of statistical clarity to draw on but patterns would indicate that rates of infections are rising and will continue to do so. So, while the UAE may screen for HIV in those who want to come and work out here it doesn’t screen the thousands of holiday makers who hit its plastic shores every year, it doesn’t screen its locals every time they leave the country or its economic migrants after they have popped home for a holiday. We have also noticed that people move away from us on the metro when out with our t-shirts on and a waft of shifty glances and whispered comments leave a tinge in the air behind us.

Hiding behind a screen only helps little Mr Fear and little Ms Stigma to thrive. We hope for better luck in India where they have been dealing with a significant HIV/AIDS issue since the epidemic boom in the 1980’s…. maybe….

Dubai dreams…

26 10 2010

The too salty water licks the toes of the mighty plastic forest of skyscrapers that desperately huddle together on the edge of the Gulf. We have travelled long and hard to make it to this point, swerving our way across the planet to try to wiggle our way to Thailand but much has muddied the path – which looked so clear and easy on our blow up globe; Ethnic fighting in Osh upset our Stans route, the devastating floods washed away our road in Northern Pakistan, the subsequent fighting made the journey through southern Pakistan too dangerous and the visa too hard to get hold of….. and so here we are. In Dubai. Sitting in a friend of Liz’s flat (thank all the baby cheeses for St Laura the jolly without whom we would be in financial meltdown!) holding tight to a scrap of paper with a hastily written number on it – our last hope.  ‘Try and get a Dhow’ yet another voice advises ‘Michal Palin did it!’.. and so with moist patches of hope gathering in our hearts we head off to the Seaman’s Mission. A fine place to find a Captain!

‘Seaman’s ID’ the gruff security guard barks at us, eyeing us suspiciously… Liz shoots me a look, ‘do seamen have ID?’ her raised eyebrows venture … ‘I have a salt encrusted t-shirt’ I whisper ‘do you think that will help’, Liz delivers me a surreptitious thump before returning to Mr Gruff… ‘emm.. we are looking for a Captain .. well for passage to India.. we have bikes and .. em .. it’s for charity .. and em….’ she falters, this is beginning to sound like a bad episode of Pugwash.. ‘emm.. we thought here.. we might find someone, someone who could take us’. Mr Gruff rolls back on his heels for a moment, clearly weighing us up… he huffs out a final and decisive garlicky gruff and disappears into the majesty of his tiny security box to return an unfathomably long 10 mins later and presents us with our little scrap of hope. ‘Try this number… John might be able to help, he runs the mission’.

Liz keys in the number and waits. John is helpful but clear ‘it’s illegal. After 9-11 things have tightened up – you could get passage on a container ship but only from Europe, good luck’. And with that our final little sandcastle of hope melted away.  Conflict and natural disaster have forced us to follow the land option into countries we never thought we’d go to and onto shores we didn’t ever dream of landing on. But now we have to fly – to get to India, to carry on to Thailand we have to fly over the sea. And so we will. But what we will do is fly to the tip – to Trivandrum. We will fly to the very bottom on India, because from the bottom of India to Kathmandu is as far as from the border of Iran to Kathmandu .. so we will still be able to say we have travelled the overland distance from the UK to Thailand.  This compromise affords our sagging little hearts a slight pep. So now we face the challenge of boxing our bikes and praying the bikes can make the journey without sustaining any damage. And the even greater challenge of gearing up emotionally and physically ready to face Mighty Mother India!