I guess I could call it jet-setting… Having just returned from almost a month in India, from a comprehensive tour of the YouthAIDS programs, I'm heading back to my beloved Africa. A beautiful place, but a place ravished by AIDS and poverty.
Throughout Africa, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is over 30%. A quarter of infected schoolgirls who contract HIV before their fourteenth birthday will not live past their 20th. Young girls sometimes take a "rich uncle" or "sugar daddy" or sleep with their teachers to pass their exams. Then there is the myth that sleeping with a virgin will cure your HIV infection. Compound these realities with the peer pressure that affects girls all over the world, and what hope do these young girls have? The ever-looming threat of HIV/AIDS and death is magnified in Africa.
The week leading up to my departure was a busy one; I had last-minute dinners with friends to tell them of my imminent next adventure. My father was freaking out, as I was off to war-torn Uganda. Not your usual holiday destination, but places of war and unrest are exactly where we need to operate. Disease does not stick to conventional areas, and neither should education and prevention. Population Services International sometimes goes where the private sector and governments do not or cannot go, filling a critical gap in health care and providing much-needed health education, products, and services to the undeserved.
I spent the day trying to get organized. There is so much to think about - malaria pills, sunblock, presentations, visas, shots, etc. I gathered a few gifts (Kiehl's scented candles) for our program staff; they have been so kind to organize the program with very little notice, and I am looking forward to hearing their stories. We always manage to find incredibly dedicated people who have chosen to devote their talents to this lifesaving work.
So I am off to Uganda, a tiny country sandwiched between Rwanda, Tanzania, the Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia. I am going out to show the senior management of Johnson & Johnson our programs, and I plan to visit the northern camps of Uganda, where we operate in the most horrendous conditions. From what I can understand, there are about 1.5 million displaced people, refugees in their own country, living in camps all over Uganda. They are protected by the army but terrorized by members of The Lord's Resistance Army, who raid the camps, rape the women, kidnap small children, and train them as child soldiers. Then the children go back into the camps to kill their families, as they have been given drugs and brainwashed during military training. As you can imagine, the camps have the most appalling conditions: no trees, as they have all been cut down for firewood, small huts, no sanitation, and the only form of employment is prostitution. Such conditions are naturally ripe for disease, HIV, waterborne infections, and malaria.
This is where YouthAIDS comes in. The journey begins...