It is 30 years since World AIDS Day was first commemorated, propelled by a global surge of frontline activism. Today it feels urgent to recall that era in Africa — when treatment access was a dream, and stigma and emotional violence were the dominant responses to HIV and AIDS. It feels urgent to remember the bravery of women disclosing their status to cheating husbands, as young girls and older grandmothers reeled under the burden of caring for surviving kin, and more voices within the health sector began to yield to activist questions and call for compassionate action and a response informed by basic principles of human rights.
Almost every east and southern African that I know lost relatives and friends in those early decades, as mourning became a routine anguish. This was a pain that I traced in the prose poem Dreamings, written after a family visit.
(meditations on HIV/AIDS in Uganda II)
In the dream of a dream. Somewhere inside the coarse melody of breathing, there is a woman. In a dream of a dream, somewhere, there is a woman weeping. The cotton of her busuti is creased at the knees after hours of kneeling by the bedside. She is holding tea in one hand, and in the dusk she drinks it. A kerosene lamp lights the motion of hand to cup to sighing lips.
In a dream of a dream. Somewhere.
Three men lean against the bar, focused on the cool froth of their afternoon drinks. Kenyan beer, Tusker. Their suits are freshly pressed and their talk is pungent like the smell of overripe mangoes. Ageing roosters, they speak about the news of the past weeks, and between the gossiping they mourn. Grace’s daughter is sick and she has gone home to the village in Ankole. The rains are heavy and the men hope that the bus will reach the village by nightfall. The road must have been churned to mud by now.
An old woman murmurs short prayers as she watches her daughters pounding groundnuts. It is nearing ﬁve o’clock and she wears a dress of ochre and green that seems at peace with the red clay of the hillsides. Her son Joseph will be marrying on Sunday and the community will be expecting a grand feast. The millet has been ground and is ready to cook but ten kilos of matoke still need to be cut and prepared by the day. Her oldest daughter pauses, turns to look at her and she remembers her husband who passed only last year. She grows weary remembering the hours of cooking, washing, digging she did to support her family- yet her husband still sought satisfaction outside of the house. Her prayers resume with the pounding.
In a dream of a dream. Somewhere between heartbeat and the coarse melody of breathing, there is a woman. In a dream of a dream, somewhere, there is a woman telling stories. The days grow long in each syllable she oﬀers. Sometimes she speaks bullets that recall the days of armies that swarmed the country like locusts, destroying what they could. Other times she speaks Nile waters that brought wazungu so far from their homes. They say she can speak injections and pills that bring the fever down, and bring life back for another day. Today she is speaking in reams of colourful cotton. Bodies are being cleansed for burial and she will clothe them in the hues of mountain ﬂowers.
In a dream of a dream, somewhere. There is a woman.
~ Horn, Jessica. 2006. Republished in The Mouthmark Book of Poetry.
Activism is what changed the game. Although treatment is by no means universal today, it is so much more widely accessible- and more effective in prolonging life. This may not have been possible without the passionate, intelligent mass-based organising of the South African Treatment Action Campaign and its precedent setting legal challenge that opened the way for the wide production of affordable generic anti-retroviral drugs. While the men of TAC made the headlines, it had a majority women organising base, as well as several luminary women in its founding and subsequent leadership.
Today we also have a sophisticated understanding of how HIV infection is linked to gender inequality and its related violences, as positive women’s testimony and solidarity building with non-positive women built an African feminist consciousness around HIV/AIDS. We understand why young African women are still amongst the most vulnerable to new infections, and that it is also possible to prevent the violence and chip away at the patriarchal attitudes and sexual cultures that create this vulnerability. Against the grain of a deeply colonial prudishness, activists pushed discussions of sex and sexuality into public space across the African continent. The concept of sexual rights was elaborated against this backdrop of activism against AIDS, interrogating myths and realities around our heterosexualities alongside queer African existance.
We understand now how homophobic stigma and laws around sex work fuel the epidemic. We see how ultra-patriarchal religious fundmentalisms exacerbate problematic positions around condom use in marriage, blocking life-saving sexuality education and provision of services to sex workers and men who have sex with men. All of these understandings are the result of a loving militance – from individual acts of truth-telling, to mass based mobilisation and policy advocacy.
If World AIDS Day serves to commemorate, then this year I am compelled to honour the legacy of positive African women’s activism that built community, saved lives, chanted down stigma and, crucially, expanded our feminisms to understand that HIV and AIDS is a deeply feminist concern. While international and regional attention and its related funding shifts to engage other health crises, it remains vital for us as African advocates to persist in our solidarity with those living with and affected by HIV and AIDS as one of the enduring ‘intersections’ of our work towards justice, bodily autonomy and health rights for all.