It was baking hot in Nelie Alfredo Marinze’s little mud-walled shack, but we sat inside and she pushed the tin door closed against the prying eyes of her village. With the help of a translator who spoke her native Shonga, she told me how her husband left Lionde, in southern Mozambique, to work in the mines in South Africa years before, and how one day he just didn’t come home. (The HIV infection rate for miners in South Africa is estimated at 35 per cent.) She told me that for the past year she had been troubled by diarrhea and an infection in her throat, that the nurse at the bare little health outpost in town told her that she should have “the test.” She had it, and the nurse told her she had AIDS. When she told her new boyfriend the news, he fled. She didn’t know what to say to her two children, nor did she know how to feed them. These days she was often too sick to work her small plot of land.
We talked for an hour or so, sitting amid the cooking pots and a small stack of clothes, me on the one good chair she insisted I have. I thanked Nelie for answering my questions (some of them terribly intrusive), and asked if there was anything she wanted to add. Shyly, she held out her hand and said there was one thing. “What is this AIDS? I have heard people talk about it. They told me at the clinic I have it. But I don’t understand. I don’t know what it is, and no one will tell me. Does it mean I will die?”
It was a sickening moment. The day before, I had interviewed a miner with AIDS who had perhaps hours left to live. He clutched at my hands and sobbed, pleading with me not to leave him there. A few days later, I would meet a crowd of orphaned children who played a rambunctious game of Simon Says with me – and who would probably be dead within two years. These experiences, which come with each day of covering the AIDS pandemic in Africa, gnaw at my thick journalistic calluses. But Nelie, Nelie ripped the skin right off.
I don’t remember what I told her. I fumbled and stuttered and searched for any answer but the obvious. I said that HIV was a germ that causes a disease called AIDS, and that it is AIDS that is making so many of the people in her town waste thin and then die. I said that a person can have the germ and still live for a long time (although looking at the lesions on Nelie’s arms, I thought it would not be long for her) and that there are drugs that could keep her alive for years – that her government is trying to figure out how to get the drugs out to villages like Lionde. Lamely I suggested that she should ask about the drugs at the clinic, keep pushing the nurse to find out when anti-retrovirals would be available there. “This,” I remember thinking, “is wrong. I’m not a doctor. I should not be answering this woman’s questions.”
Nelie listened silently, and nodded when I trailed to pained silence. She gave me a little hug goodbye, and I got back in my car feeling utterly useless.
I left Canada last summer to take up the new post of The Globe and Mail Africa correspondent, full of great intentions to make Globe readers see Africa differently: no more skinny babies with flies in their eyes, not just “Africa,” one big country with an indistinguishable smear of wars and famines and kleptocrat dictators. I had lofty goals about introducing Canadians to my Africa. I wanted to write about Nigeria’s booming film industry, Namibia’s microbreweries, South Africa’s obsession with Barbie and the cellphone toting, belly-baring cool girls of Kampala. And about all the good things that happen: the Kenyan women who organized to outlaw the circumcision of their granddaughters; the little Angolan television show that helps reunite families separated in the civil war; the former poachers in Rwanda who now fiercely guard the endangered mountain gorillas.
When I had been here for three months, my mother asked plaintively on the phone one day, “When are you going to write a happy story?” I realized my well-laid plans to show a different Africa had been swamped by the pandemic.
The thing is, happy stories are a little thin on the ground these days. There is a nice new shelter for elephants orphaned by the economic crisis in Zimbabwe, but it’s hard to bring myself to write about elephants when 3,000 people die of AIDS in Zimbabwe every single week.
The crisis is so immense that it dwarfs all else. In the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, more than half of the adults have AIDS, virtually none are being treated – and the government is confronting the very real possibility that the country will not exist in another three years. In Zambia, one in three children has no parents, and no one has a clue what it’s going to mean when they grow up, uneducated, unsocialized and unloved. Nelie Alfredo Marinze is one of 1.6 million Mozambicans who have HIV/AIDS; there are only 300 public-sector doctors in her entire country of 18 million people. I feel paralyzed in the face of stories such as these, with no idea how to make them real for Globe readers in Halifax or Regina.
I am immensely glad that the Globe chose to send me here – no other Canadian media outlets are opening new bureaus. Africa is, in the words of editor-in-chief Ed Greenspon, not an “obvious” place to put a reporter. I am one of only three permanent Canadian correspondents on the continent (there is a CBC bureau in Cairo and a CTV correspondent in Kampala.) That’s three people to cover 56 countries, a half-dozen wars, three incipient famines, the most corrupt mining industries in the world – and, oh yes, the fact that 36 million people have HIV/AIDS and will die within the decade, barring some dramatic international intervention.
I don’t know how to tell these stories. But what really mystifies me is why more people aren’t here trying.