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I’m tired. I’m working hard and long hours, all in the run up to the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, in a couple of weeks. But I’m excited too. Yes in the past Staying Alive has done major events at the conference – The Bill Clinton Forum in 2002, 48 Fest Toronto in 2006, Sex Uncovered in 2008 (though that wasn’t too major), but I actually feel like this is a major year for us. We announce the results of our multi-country evaluation (Trinidad & Tobago, Kenya and Zambia) for the Ignite campaign. I’ve heard them so I’m pretty stoked and can’t wait to make them public!

We’re having a massive booth where we’ll be doing some pretty cool stuff – can’t say what yet – not that it’s top secretive but the woman responsible for it, likes to think it is. And then there’s is the Viacom Leadership in Action party – can’t wait for that either! I don’t know how we can top the 2008 party in Mexico, which was held on the roof of a stunning boutique hotel – but hey, it was Mexico, can you really compete? We will have top leaders like Michel Sidebe and my girl Marvelyn Brown share their thoughts on leadership in the response to HIV/AIDS.

Because I’ve made it a personal challenge to make HIV more accessible to young people, I worked closely with Ben (a coordinator in the team), who I’ve made responsible for community engagement, to come up with a theme for our online space to bring the theme of the conference to our audience. So last Monday, we kicked off a campaign called ‘The Right to Be Me’, it’s a series of empowering articles from ordinary people who’ve overcome adversity. The idea is to formulate what rights mean to each person, but also to encourage, inspire and empower our audience as we campaign for universal access to prevention. Check out the site to see what’s up there. We’ll also be putting up celebrity interviews on their perspective of their right to be themselves.

So it’s busy times over at staying alive HQ but I’m really excited, as I’m leading the efforts on our presence at Vienna and so far it’s been good, even if there are a lot of late nights and stress – is it weird that I enjoy the pressure? Well it’s because I know it will be worth it in the end.

Though I have to admit, I’m very curious to see the impact of our evaluation – for years people have talked about the importance of result proven strategies (though I’m very much of the school of trust your instincts, as long as you know your audience), so let’s see how this will be received. I’m excited – who needs sleep?!

My brother died a year ago – 29th June 2009, we buried him on the 2nd of July 2009. It doesn’t feel like it’s been a year, in fact it feels like it was just yesterday when I got the call that he was dead.

Because we’re split across continents and with my other brother getting married next year, we’re going to do the proper memorial next year. So I spent the day at home, doing some quiet reflection, my sister sent me some Bible passages to read and I spoke to my mum – to make sure she was ok. Like a true African woman, she was being strong, more worried about everyone else, then allowing herself to publicly mourn. I’m not good with emotions, so I played along with her, and talked about other things – like the birth of two calves at the farm.

Everyone in the family is dealing in their own way, though it is difficult for all of us. I think it’s always difficult to lose someone in your family because you feel like you lose a part of yourself. For me, it’s been even more difficult because my brother and I fell out. His drinking made me ashamed of him. He was extremely intelligent but he’d become an alcoholic, who roamed the farm area with the local farm hands – and I was embarrassed. It never occurred to me that he felt comfortable with him because they never judged him. Whereas I was just worried about what everyone else thought (Zambia is a classist society). We never seemed to connect after that. For that I feel the most sad.

Even when he was diagnosed with HIV, I never wanted that to be the reason for us to patch up our differences, but now I wish I had. I just didn’t want him to think that the HIV made him a different person. I didn’t want it to define him. I thought we’d have more time.

And sometimes I feel like I’m a fake because my job requires that I push out messages of hope, but I worry that we don’t tell the complete truth. Maybe we need to start talking to the families of people living with HIV too, HIV doesn’t only affect the person living with the virus in their body. Sure HIV doesn’t define who a person is, but it is something that makes us realise that we are mortal, that life is short. HIV shouldn’t be a reason to mend bridges with your loved ones, but helps push you in the right direction. Otherwise you live with the pain of, ‘i wish i had…’.

It’s easy to be angry with the virus, but anger keeps you stuck, especially when you internalise that anger. My brother’s death has helped bring my family closer together and made us more aware of what is going on in each others lives. It’s also made me realise how important my family is to me, they drive me insane, but they are my first priority and I’ll do what it takes to make sure we’re ok.

The experience has changed me. I’d already lost a best friend to this virus, and that hurt, but losing family, that’s a lot to bear. In my case two brothers. Enough is enough. So it’s strengthened my resolve with my work. It’s not enough to have the most creative and visually arresting programme, it’s got to have an impact, even if the impact is getting people to talk. HIV is not something we should be ashamed of, but it’s not something we need to pretend is a virus that is even remotely easy to deal with.

In the meantime, I think I’ll stick to the gym to work out my internal struggles. Thanks for listening, I needed to get this off my chest.

Zambia - home to the mighty victoria falls

Going home was a somewhat welcome break. I did go for a family emergency, though the emergency was less so when I arrived, but was good to be there.
I got to soak up some sun for starters, which was funny because my parents kept asking my why i wasn’t cold (er because it was 20 degrees!). But also to hang out with my family and catch up. Being from a country where 1 in 4 people are HIV+ it’s quite common that the conversation will come up – because most of us having relatives living with the disease – as well as the all too common conversation of ‘suspected’ cases. This I find quite disturbing that on one hand, people insist that stigma is mainly self stigma, that most people are used to HIV, so don’t stigmatise, yet there’s still the whispers of people who may or may not be infected.
I found out about a cousin who is infected – but I’m not supposed to tell anyone because she doesn’t want people to know – so said her sister. My aunt then later told me that my cousin is open about her status and that she wants to fight it and live a long life, and wants to make sure other relatives do the same by sharing her story. So I’m a bit confused as to whether she is publicly open or only open to relatives, or maybe even select relatives. Either way I was glad to hear this because she is so full of life and to give up would have been so devastating.
Then I have the other relative who is so clearly in denial. He’s just recovered from an illness, where we just weren’t sure he was going to pull through, thankfully he did. But it made us realise that as a family, we need to talk about what is going on. We can’t continue to leave him to live in denial and us wait until he’s ready to come round, he needs to start taking care of his health and we need to help him.
But it was an eye opener because I realised that as much as I know about this disease, I really know nothing about it. I was thankfully when I was talking to Aric from Discovery Channel’s Global Educational Partnership, about their feature length film on AIDS in Africa (for Africa?), that they really want to tell the real story about HIV/AIDS. I think with some script adaptations, their film has the power to do something very different and unique when it comes to HIV. Too often funding is tied to what we can or can’t say, and while I understand why in most cases, it does make you wonder whether the true stories will ever come out.
Aric had a good point when he talked about prevention (and i’m using my own words here, so maybe i misunderstood him!), how can people prevent a disease they don’t understand? Most of us don’t understand the science of the virus for us to prevent it, or help take care of the people we love who are infected. And maybe the onus is on us to find out more, I really can’t say why I haven’t taken the time to understand this more…But as communicators, we also should be imparting this information, as much as we do the ‘use a condom’ message.
Every time I go to any part of Africa, I do get a bit sad, but I also have a huge sense of hope, because even though people are dying, there is still a sense of hope; people still smile. But this has being going on far too long, we really need bold actions and more research to really start making long lasting changes.
The New York Times article recently pointed out how the money for treatment is running out, this is really important because it’s yet another reason highlighting the importance of investing in prevention. It’s cheaper than treatment.
People, who think that I’m a bit of an African elitist, probably think this is an insensitive thing to say, well I’m not an elitist, I don’t come from a rich family that bankrolls me or my relatives living with HIV, but the reality is that if the money isn’t there something has to give.
Our own governments should do more too. But that’s for another post.

I love winning awards. Shuga and Travis McCoy’s Unbeaten Track have won Gold in their respective categories at the World Media Festival. I’m obviously very proud, being that I was an executive producer on Shuga. Hoping this is the start to many more awards!

Here is a reminder of why they won!

All we need now is funding to do Season 2 of Shuga – let me know if you have $1million you want to give!

And Travis McCoy’s Unbeaten Track

Yesterday I had the pleasure and honor to sit on a panel with Hollywood heavies – two co-executive producers and writers of Law and Order: SVU and a supervising producer of Grey’s Anatomy, as well as a woman who used to work on telenovas. We were at the Hollywood, Health and Society conference on setting the research agenda for entertainment education.
It was interesting to see how different we all work when it comes to incorporating global health messaging into our programmes. We all had the same challenge, the ability to add in the messages, but keep the show relevant, authentic and interesting to our audiences.
I think in that way we’re a bit luckier because we create original programming for each issue we tackle. But then that also means we don’t have a existing audience base to reach, so run the risk of poor ratings.
Because we don’t have characters we need to stay true to, we also allow our partners a lot more leeway with what goes into the programming, where for obvious reasons Greys and SVU simply can’t give global health agencies.
I understand the frustration of these agencies that want to ‘control’ the message, but I think that’s where blue sky thinking needs to come into play.
The key problem is not knowing in advance when global health messages will be airing on the shows when they’re broadcast in other countries. However, that doesn’t stop the agencies from using these storylines as a catalyst to encourage dialogue among their audience and in their outreach plans. If anything this introduction of global health messages into such globally successful programmes serves to support the in-country and even global campaigns on the issues.
This is just my observation, that these programmes are just one more tool in the arsenal to address global health issues especially to mainstream audiences.

One of the best things about Shuga was its soundtrack (along with the great messaging, acting, cinematography etc). The music was pumping and really profiled local talent. One of my favourite songs was from female rapper Stella Mwangi.
Here is the video to the song She Got It