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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.

Red in partnership with the Global Fund (I think) and HBO has produced this 30 minute documentary called the Lazarus Effect. If you’re not familiar with the Bible, Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus. The documentary shows the extraordinary effects treatment can have on people living with HIV. I have to admit, despite working in HIV prevention communication, I’ve never actually seen that happen, probably because most of the people I’ve seen that close to death, did die.

The documentary filmed in Zambia shows how in three months, people who looked skeletal and on the bring of death, when put on treatment, went back to putting on weight and looking healthy. The aim of the documentary is to show that treatment works and its needed. What the documentary didn’t talk about is how funding for treatment is running out. When you’re on treatment its for life, when you stop taking it, you can die – it’s as simple as that.

The fact that only a fraction of people who need treatment can afford it, or are on it with free meds is bad enough, but the fact that those already on treatment (through government or NGO programs), who knows how many more years treatment will be available – if governments continue to rely on foreign aid. Governments, especially African ones, need to be more responsible for their people without heavy reliance on foreign aid, because we need sustainable solutions.

And while they’re figuring out how to pay for treatment, they also need to figure out how to pay for intensive prevention campaigns, campaigns that work, campaigns that are relevant to its people. It’s cheaper to prevent HIV than put people on treatment for the rest of their lives.

First we need to understand why people are still getting infected. There is a lot of reasons or research published on this, but not so much on the socio-psychological dynamics. My sister – the Rhodes Scholar (yep I’m a proud sister) is doing her research project on how inter-personal relationships can affect people’s perception, and therefore taking, of risks. I can’t wait to read it.

There are obviously lots of ways to approach this, but without a significant investment of resources, prevention and treatment simply won’t be impactful enough to be successful – I know, I’m preaching to the choir.

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’m off to Zambia on Monday. I wish it was under better circumstances, but it’s to go and be with my ill brother, to spend some time with him and help him get better. At the same time I think it will be a good time for me to go and get a reality check.
When your work revolves around HIV prevention for young people, it’s kind of hard to do it effectively when you’re 1,000 of miles away from the problem and not getting a sense of what’s happening on the ground. Yes I read the reports and the briefings and try to keep up to date with what is proving to work and what doesn’t work. But whenever I go back to Africa, or any region with high prevalence rates, you sometimes get the sense that some of those reports are just words. You can’t know for real without seeing and experiencing the impact firsthand.
Working to improve the lives of people, whether it be through poverty, infant/maternal mortality, sexual health etc, is hard. It’s hard because even the small progress made is still insignificant to the problem. It almost seems insurmountable. And then when something hits home – especially for those of us who are personally invested in these issues, you get the feeling of ‘why do i bother? if nothing is changing, why do it?’
I know for some people this is a job, for me this isn’t just a job, it’s a huge part of my life. And if we’re not going to get it right, why are we doing it?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not demotivated, I’m just feeling challenged. So while I’ll be taking a time out to be with family, I hope I’ll come back re-focused, with some lessons learnt that I can incorporate in what I do.
Anyway, I’ve hardly been that regular with my blogs these last few weeks, but hopefully I’ll come back full of stories to tell!

I’m addicted to shopping. There I said it. In the last month or so I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of money on handbags, clothes, electronics and other personal items. I am an emotional shopper; frustration, anger, sadness all lead me to the nearest shop in sight. And you know you’re an addict when you hide your purchases from friends and family, and even colleagues at work! Or make excuse, ‘no, I didn’t buy it, so and so gave it to me, aren’t they nice?’ I’ve been doing that for years.
But I’ve noticed that my purchases have become a little bit more expensive, a Marc Jacobs handbag, a Michael Kors clutch, a MacBook, a professional straightener (erm my 3rd one!) and I’m beginning to wonder if its influenced by what I see around me. In fact I know it is – that and the fact that I can now actually afford it. I see these products in my favourite magazines, with women I admire and maybe even someone talking about it being a must have. And then I feel I must have it!
So what if I change my environment would that help? I don’t know. Ok maybe if I’d never been in the environment in the first place, then I’d still have the shopping addiction but for less pricey stuff.
I was actually going to relate this to HIV messaging and how messaging to the individual is no doubt crucial, but equally so is messaging to the community. How the community dictates what is acceptable and what is not, making it a healthy environment to talk about sex without shame or discrimination, allowing it to be a good thing to use protection (condoms) in relationships (including marriage) etc.
And that in turn would make people within the communities have better, safer behaviours and create enabling environments for those already living with the virus. A win win situation right?
But then I thought back to my original statement; I have an addictive personality and I’m addicted to shopping. That’s within me, it’s not a product of my environment.
Maybe the whole nature vs nurture argument is just a cop out, an enabling argument for people who don’t want to take responsibility for their behaviour? If it was socially unacceptable to be a shopaholic, I’d lie about my sprees. Oh wait, I already said that I occasionally do that too, though Lord knows why. But my point is, this is the same thing that people who don’t want to change their behaviour will do.
It’s funny – and now I’m completely going off on a tangent (as I usually do) – I was having this discussion with a friend and talking about the sexual risks my friends (ok myself included) took back in Zambia. Using condoms or not, we’d still have sex. Russian roulette with our lives right? Some of those friends regrettably did end up with the bullet. It didn’t stop us.
Then I moved to London. Now, I’m not particularly a fan of the media (ironic i know), but I just see how this can be manipulated, and I do take everything I see on TV or hear on radio with a pinch of salt (if i wasn’t there myself, not sure it happened, or certainly the way the media said it did). But anyway, there was something about the way AIDS in Africa was reported and depicted or the way people talked about it that scared the crap out of me. Now, if I have sex, when I go back home for holidays or whatever, it’s always protected! – oh wait, so wasn’t that as a result of my environment?
Point is, we need to do both – change the individual and change the community.

Last week my relative who is not open with their HIV status was admitted into hospital. I was really concerned because their health had been up and down. Every time my phone notified me that I had an SMS my heart skipped a beat. For good reason too. Last year when my brother passed away, I was sent a text message informing me that he’d died. At the time I never thought about how insensitive and thoughtless it was, but in retrospect I do wonder what people think when they decide to inform you of such information via text message.
I suppose no one things about it, and then you have to have enough phone credit to make an international call as opposed to sending a text… Anyway, that’s kind of now made me dreadful every time a relative is in hospital and an SMS comes in.

Thankfully my relative has been diagnosed and can be treated for the illness he currently has, so I can breathe a little bit easier when a text message comes in now.

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

Today my sister said to be that the silence around HIV in families kills. Despite the fact that my sister usually is a bit of a drama queen today I thought she was actually right.
A family member disclosing their HIV status is a scary thing – for both the person and for the family. In the last few years I’ve personally been affected by HIV more than I ever would have considered possible. Not sure why, I am from a country where 1 in 5 people are HIV+.
Some of these relatives are openly positive, others, while not in denial, not really talk about it or acknowledge it, no matter how many times it puts them in hospital. So what are you supposed to talk about? I don’t think talking about it is easy, and sometimes I do wonder what you’re supposed to say. This is yet another problem with the virus, its become an inaccessible topic.
We do need to be talking about management of the disease, what sort of support our friends and family need, but often we don’t know how to bring this up. Almost fearful of the elephant in the room. There’s available information out there for people living with HIV, but what about for the immediate family and friends?
We want to help, we want to be supportive, we want to talk, but we don’t know how or where to begin.
Even now, having lost two brothers, I always wish I had said certain things and now it’s too late. I don’t want it to be too late with other relatives. So I guess you just take a deep breath, open your mouth and just speak.

I’m trying not to feel jaded. It’s hard not to when I try to think of the good tv programming on HIV/AIDS – that isn’t a predictable, done before format.

Is it because HIV/AIDS is such a difficult issue with loads of political ramifications? Is it because people don’t care? Or people are too scared to offend some people?

I really don’t know what it is, but sometimes, I wonder what the end goal is with some programming ideas. I’m not talking about any shows in particular, just generally thinking of what I’ve seen in the last few years.
I did like the story line in Greys Anatomy which was set back in the day when AIDS was called GRID. That was good because it looked at it from the stigma point of view, but then brought into perspective other discrimination/stigma from the day i.e. inter-racial dating, black and female doctors being the first of their kind etc. (not first, but you know what i mean). And I thought that was good because it put it into a context that people could relate to. It just made HIV/AIDS more accessible i think.

That’s one of the things I struggle with – definitely for the audience I have to reach – how do you make HIV/AIDS accessible? The reality is, that while there are millions of people living with the virus, and countless other affected by it, there are even more who are not infect and seemingly unaffected. That’s the audience I want to reach, because in this day and age, in the global world we live in, how can you think you’re unaffected?

I want to re-establish the African thinking of ‘it takes a community’. We, as a people, inhabiting this planet are the community. Call me the eternal optimist (in all my cyniscm), but I do believe that if humanity comes together we can stop the spread of HIV and at the same time create an environment that protects and supports those already living with the virus. But people have to want to do this, people have to be moved to do this. We need a new generation of people who care about us and not about me – the ‘we, not me’ generation (as coined by someone in the office). And I do think that media has a big role to play in making this happening. Aaaah if only had had loads of cash myself, the programming i’d make! one day…

I’m back in London and feeling quite energised after my trip to LA – not only because of the refreshing weather (which obviously did help), but because of the research agenda conference. I was quite hasty in my judgment of the ‘research’ people not being able to think outside the box, because by the end of the two days they had proved me wrong, with some really insightful approaches. It’s given me the desire to want to do something new.

The research stuff was also interesting – I was worried that they’d use jargon that I’d have no idea what they were talking about, but a lot of it was in layman’s terms. They also did a lot of stuff on social networking that was really interesting. One of the most interesting presentations revolved around the idea of social networks being associated with behaviour – ultimately people associate with others like themselves.

It seems obvious enough – and actually if you’ve ever been to any school with the cliques (or even in workplace settings coming to think of it), you’ll know how important the influences in these networks can be, and even the importance of your social networks. Such thinking helps you to target your efforts – think about it, the diffusers of change will be faster when led by popular opinion leaders (think Oprah).

Now I need to figure out how to identify the influencers for our audience… Though thinking about it, it’s probably the people we see in popular culture… hmmmm that might be a bit of a problem. Let me think about that one.