Book Review: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa

I’ve just read two books by two people who care passionately about Africa and the AIDS pandemic that has swept and is sweeping the continent. The first, by Canadian diplomat and humanitarian Stephen Lewis is entitled Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa. The second, by Canadian journalist Stephanie Nolen is 28 Stories of Aids in Africa.

ImageAs UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis writes ‘I have spent the last four years watching people die.’ The anguish of the situation is that these deaths are unnecessary. There is, if not a cure, at least a medical ‘cocktail’ that would allow infected people to lead productive and healthy lives. He writes "Virtually every country in East and southern Africa has become a nation of mourners."

In the midst of this nightmare, African governments and activists have seized on what they see as a lifeline to extricate themselves from this catastrophe: a lifeline that has been endorsed, with pledges of financial support, by the global community. Called the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), and made up of eight targets to cut poverty and hunger in half by the year 2015,  these goals were adopted unanimously by all the nations attending the 2000 session  of the General Assembly at the United Nations.

Promises are made to be broken; and the United Nations has made and broken plenty of them, but this time around, an aroused global citizenry is insisting that countries make good on their pledges. The MGDs have become the centerpiece of public policy in country after country, especially in the developing world. Nevertheless, Lewis states "Every learned commentator, from the World Bank to the United Nations Development Program asserts that not a one of the high-prevalence HIV countries will make the goals.  In fact, sub-Saharan Africa is so poor, so besieged by a range of communicable diseases, so lacking in human capacity, so barren of infrastructure, that it is entirely likely that not a single country in the region will make the goals. Nor has that situation been radically altered by the G8 Summit in July 2005." He adds "I have to say that the ongoing plight of Africa forces me to perpetual rage.  It’s all so unnecessary, so crazy that hundreds of millions of people should be thus abandoned."

The second book I read puts a human face on Lewis’s passion.  Stephanie Nolen is a Canadian journalist who has traveled across Africa for the past six years, compiling a uniquely human portrait of the continent in crisis.  The title of her book is 28 Stories of Aids in Africa – one story for every million Africans living with the disease today.

"I looked at AIDS in Africa for a long time before I understood what I was seeing," writes Nolen.  "AIDS is not an event, or a series of them; it’s a mirror held up to the cultures and societies we build." Nolen’s stories reveal how the disease has managed to spread so inexorably, preying on the most intimate moments of a young productive generation; how it is inextricably tied to poverty, conflict, and famine in the many cultures it ravages; how treatment works, and how people who can’t get it fight to stay alive with courage and dignity against huge odds.

Surprisingly, it is not a depressing read. Nolen tells the stories of individuals, in country after country, who were unwilling to die quietly in extreme pain so that their families could claim that they passed away from tuberculosis or pneumonia. They have announced that they are HIV positive and have borne the scorn and exclusion, and, eventually, the understanding of their neighbors and community.

She documents signs of hope: "In late 2006 just over a million people in Africa were taking antiretrovirals {the three-in-one pill that stabilizes their disease}- a tenfold increase since I began reporting on the pandemic (although still less than a quarter of those who need the drugs)."

She ends her book "Every single day in Africa, 5,500 people die of HIV/AIDS – a treatable preventable illness.  We have twenty-eight million reasons to act." In a postscript titled How You Can Help, she writes: "The most valuable thing that you can do to fight the AIDS pandemic in Africa is talk about it.  There has, in the past year or two, been a swell of interest at a grassroots level, and international stars and philanthropists have taken up the cause.  But the crisis continues to fail to draw the political and financial response it merits because too few people in the West yet understand or care what is happening."

The group most active on this issue in the US now is JubileeUSA, a network of religious institutions, labor unions and activist groups who connects the health crisis in Africa with the debts that impoverished nations are forced to pay to International Financial Institutions. How can you hire and pay nurses if you have to send over half of your annual budget to pay off loans that were often illegitimate in the first place? JubileeUSA is promoting a bill in Congress called the 2007 Jubilee Act (HR 2634) which would provide debt cancellation to countries to enable them to address extreme poverty. Moving the Jubilee Act through Congress is the central goal of this fall’s Cancel Debt Fast, a rolling 40-day fast for debt cancellation that will take place from September 6 to October 15.

Go to their website at for more information.

Book information:

28 Stories of Aids in Africa Walker & Company (May 1, 2007)

Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa House of Anansi Press; Second Edition edition (June 28, 2006)

Robin Lloyd is the publisher of Toward Freedom.