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I wrote this essay for an English class. The assignment was to explain how our lives intersected with an important historical event. It seemed clear to me that I would want to write about Shakespeare. (ed. see Amy Chesser's entry on 16 Oct 02 for our first visit with Shakespeare.)
April 12, 2005
On January 28th, 2003, George W. Bush delivered his second State of the Union Address to the members of Congress. He claimed that the United States has a responsibility to not only fight terrorism, his mantra of the time, but also to "make the world better." One way he proposed to make the world better was to aggressively fight HIV and AIDS in the most affected regions of Africa and the Caribbean. There are approximately 40 million people with HIV/AIDS worldwide (The World Bank), 30 million of whom live in Africa alone (Bush). However a shockingly small number (50,000) of those who are infected actually receive any treatment (Bush). I watched George W. Bush give his speech about the need for AIDS treatments in Africa as my 25-year-old Mozambican student lay dying. Despite the unprecedented amount of money Bush proposed to spend on AIDS services and medications, $15 billion over 5 years, it is not enough to foster the necessary changes to control the epidemic (Bush).
I watched George Bush's speech on the only television in a rural village in Mozambique where I lived and worked for a year. AIDS has devastated Mozambique, as it has in all southern African countries. It is estimated that approximately 13.6% of the adult population in Mozambique is infected and more than 500 new infections occur each day (AP). In the area where I lived, along a busy trade corridor, the local hospital estimated that up to 30% of adults were infected with the virus. During my year of teaching in Mozambique, I witnessed the extreme beauty of the landscape and cultures of Mozambique but I also saw firsthand the effects of international political and economic policies on the developing world. I saw how poverty and mortality played out; I saw what the statistics symbolized. I learned more about life in Mozambique and the effects of HIV/AIDS from my student “Shakespeare” than from any other source or experience.
Shakespeare came to the education center and instantly made his presence known. He earned the nickname "Shakespeare" after almost instantly starting a school newspaper and regularly captivating an audience with his storytelling skills. Even in a culture so reliant on oral histories and the passing down of stories and legends, Shakespeare's gift seemed exceptional. Yet, despite his personal uniqueness, he died in a way that is far too familiar to many Africans.
Shakespeare's battle with HIV/AIDS began soon after my arrival at the school when he caught malaria from an unprejudiced mosquito. While malaria can be fatal and does kill millions of people annually, there is an unfortunate blasé attitude about it given how common and generally treatable it is. We did not worry about Shakespeare until his malaria treatment failed. The doctors discovered that Shakespeare was also afflicted with tuberculosis (TB); even more seriously, a drug-resistant TB. Shakespeare had previously been infected with TB and, like so many other people with TB, he did not finish the six month long course of treatment. When he was re-infected, the TB bacteria had become resistant to the only treatments available in Mozambique. To protect the health of the other students, Shakespeare was asked to return to his home to recuperate.
After Shakespeare left the center, my colleague and I managed to visit him an average of two times a week. One of the first times we visited him at his home, we meandered through the maze of footpaths to arrive at Shakespeare’s grandfather's house. We were stopped along the way by two men who informed us that Shakespeare's father, a well-respected doctor, wanted nothing to do with his son’s treatment or care. He left all the decision-making to my colleague and me. We never knew the full reason why. Perhaps it was because we are white female westerners. Perhaps it was because he was ashamed, somehow, of his son. We did not dwell on all of our unanswered questions. Once we saw how gravely ill Shakespeare was, we decided that he should first seek treatment at the hospital in the city.
Upon our arrival at the Beira hospital, the second largest hospital in the country, we were told that there were no available beds. If Shakespeare was going to stay, he was going to have to sleep on the floor. We also quickly discovered that each patient had to make arrangements for someone to bring him food each day; the hospital did not have the funds. On top of the already desperate conditions, there was only one doctor on duty at a time and there were no doctors at the hospital at all on Sundays. The stench of human waste, disease, and death permeated the hospital. There were neither mosquito nets on the beds nor screens on the windows to prevent the spread of malaria. It was a sight I wish I had never seen. However, simultaneously, the images are engrained in my memory as the epitome of the stark inequalities between the developing and developed worlds. I was shocked that the quality of health care, a universal right, could be so compromised. Once again, a vague concept of shoddy healthcare became far too personal for me. It is one thing to read the statistics about poorly staffed and ill-equipped hospitals, but it is another to know that the poorly staffed, ill-equipped hospital is your best and only option.
After a few days in the hospital, Shakespeare was released. There was nothing more that could be done for him. My colleague and I pressed the doctor with the hopes of at least getting a strong painkiller for Shakespeare to allow him the peace of sleep. The doctor revealed that Shakespeare was in the late stages of AIDS and the high cost of treatments would make the treatments prohibitive. George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, said that the cost of AIDS treatments has fallen to just $300 a year (Bush). Yet, in a country like Mozambique where the average annual income in 2003 was just $210, such treatment is still out of the realm of possibility for the majority of the population (The World Bank). Teachers in Mozambique are extremely well paid, yet even with my $18 dollar a week salary, I could not buy Shakespeare more time or any comfort. Shakespeare was sent home with prescriptions for only aspirin and cough syrup to treat his AIDS and TB.
It quickly became obvious that Shakespeare's young life would be ending soon. With each of my visits, Shakespeare became more and more gaunt. Ironically, it appeared that his smile kept getting bigger, but I know that in reality his cheeks were becoming more sunken and his skin pulled tauter over his cheekbones. His legs and arms had withered down to just the bone. Perhaps the worst part, though, was that he was in obvious pain and discomfort. At that point, however, his body could not even handle any medications. I felt completely and utterly powerless. My money couldn’t buy us out of the situation. Just this once, my status as a muzungo (white foreigner) did not mean any privilege or special consideration. When I tried to console myself, I failed miserably. I never thought that I did enough for Shakespeare. Spending his last days with him, babbling about his friends at school, and overseeing his treatments (or lack there of) seemed hollow and severely lacking.
Shakespeare's mother, who visited occasionally throughout her son's ordeal, maintained that Shakespeare died because he had an insufficient amount of blood in his body. No one ever spoke the stigmatized words AIDS, HIV, or TB. Shakespeare never even knew he was infected. There was never any counseling to identify and encourage his partners to get tested. Even if they were notified, surely few would get tested; very few people even see the point of HIV/AIDS testing when there is nothing that can be done to remedy the situation. Positive test results in Mozambique are little more than a death sentence. At Shakespeare's funeral, I looked around at the young faces: Shakespeare's friends, my students. I wondered whose life would be robbed from them next.
Even now, two years after President Bush made his promise to commit $15 billion "to turn the tide against AIDS in the most affected nations of Africa" the AIDS situation in Africa is nearly the same (Bush). There are countless restrictions as to which countries can receive the money and how the money can be spent. What initially was hailed as a wonderfully generous movement now has a visible darker side. First, just 16 countries are eligible to receive money. Secondly, the money has been earmarked for treatment only and not for preventative measures. The other prevention plans for the Bush administration focus heavily on abstinence and monogamy and do not take into consideration the realities of life in Africa. For example, an enormous number of women are infected by their husbands. The women, however, are being faithful and are still being infected. I initially heard Bush's announcement with great hope for Africa and Her people. Now I see the announcement as nothing more than a PR move.
When I returned from the United States, I felt terribly removed from my life in Mozambique. I knew, though, that I had to make Shakespeare's life have a greater meaning for me. I had to find a way to compensate for the notions that I simply did not do enough for him or enough to keep the rest of my students healthy. With great fortune, I managed to find a job working with an AIDS service provider in the Chicago. When I moved to Philadelphia the same good fortune found me. It brings me great satisfaction to know that I have allowed Shakespeare's life to live on and have greater significance through my work.
It is nearly impossible to conceptualize what it means for 30 million Africans to be infected with HIV. Shockingly, it is about the same number of children in elementary schools in the United States (US Census Bureau). Somehow, the number is still incomprehensible. But for me, in one of the "hot zones," it occupied some part of every day. In one year of teaching, I lost over ten friends, students, and colleagues to some unspoken sickness, always presumed to be AIDS. I saw suffering, both physical and spiritual, that I would like to forget. Somehow the promise of $15 billion does not seem adequate, especially when compared to the $207.5 billion that will likely be spent by the end of 2005 on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (National Priorities Project). A generation is dying. It is impossible to put a price tag on the value of life and yet, the Bush administration put a paltry $15 billion dollar price tag on 30 million African lives.
The Associated Press (AP). "U.S. to increase AIDS funding for Mozambique." Maputo, Mozambique. March 3, 2005.
Bush, George W. "State of the Union Address." United States Congress. Washington, DC. January 28, 2003.
National Priorities Project. "The Calculator." Northampton, MA. March 2005. (www.costofwar.com)
United States Census Bureau Online. "School Enrollment in the United States-Social and Economical Characteristics of Students." Washington, DC. March, 2001.
The World Bank Online. "Mozambique Country Brief: Development Progress." April 2005. (www.theworldbank.org)
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