Monday, December 8, 2008


I debated with myself about writing the words “AIDS in Africa” in the title of this piece. After all, many of you still believe AIDS has nothing to do with you, and most of you believe South Africa has nothing at all to do with you. Of course that is a misconception. AIDS is a true pandemic, and a pandemic by its very nature has to do with you. It is a universal threat and an insult to humankind. It has been such for decades now. How many decades we do not know. But it is the immediacy of the global prevalence that we must confront today.

Annie Lennox, well known to many for her award-winning music, has spent the past few years bringing new awareness to the plight of South Africa, as it relates to AIDS. Michael Kearns, the Hollywood film and stage actor who was among the first to come forward as gay and HIV positive, way back when, recently travelled to South Africa. Kearns is an activist in the truest sense of the word. Today, he uses his sheer will and his understanding of the disease to grapple with it, fight it and influence you and me to do likewise.

Kearns has a way of infusing his writing with the singular grit of the five senses. Reading his words, one can see, hear, taste, feel and definitely smell the impending death among South Africans who struggle daily with AIDS. How intense their struggle really is is exemplified by one stunning statistic: At the end of 2007, there were approximately 5.7 million people living with HIV in South Africa, and almost 1,000 AIDS deaths occurring every day, according to the UNAIDS 2008 Report on the global AIDS epidemic. Kearns and his 14-year-old daughter journeyed to South Africa to “investigate, discover, be surprised and be of service,” he writes. The result is eloquently documented.

I grew up with Michael until my age of 15. We lived on the same block in the middle of middle America in the middle of the 20th century. He was an exception to all of the rules of suburban Missouri. He still is. Recently, Michael and I had dinner together in New Orleans. It was the first time we had seen each other in 40 years. If the years are written in my eyes, Michael still generates Hollywood handsome. And when he speaks of his travels to South Africa, his eyes show fury and frustration. Then you read his writing and you see how present AIDS still is on earth. A sample:
If you’ve ever smelled death, you’ll agree with me that it has a distinct smell, the way cinnamon or rain has a distinct smell. I smell death. A small boy is in one of the rooms with his grandmother, changing out of his school uniform, like a toy soldier. His mother is in the adjacent room, swaddled in blankets, dying. Virtually paralyzed, she wants to say hello even though she barely has the stamina to lift her head. I hold her hand, warm to the touch.
Meanwhile, Annie Lennox trudges the hills of South Africa to smell the same struggle. Lennox heard Nelson Mandela refer to the AIDS crisis in Africa as “genocide,” and from there she has never taken a break from her humanitarian efforts. Today, she is actively involved with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the most powerful HIV/AIDS lobbying group in Africa. Recently, Lennox was instrumental in starting SING, an organization that raises funds and awareness. Last year, she assembled 23 female vocalists to record “Sing.” Watch the result now:

Mandela said, "Let us use the universal language of music, to sing out our message around the world." And I would say, simply use your voice in any way you can to eradicate AIDS. Sing out, speak out, write out, holler out, wail if you must, or holler at the moon. Do what it takes. Let Annie and Michael be your mentors. Every voice counts.


Joan Eisenstodt said...

My friend Doug died in 1985 of AIDS. Then Michael in 1987. And then so many many more. Africa, and Asia, and here in the US .. it continues and too many have forgotten. Thank you Paul for reminding everyone.

Paul A. Greenberg said...

Well, I can remind you with words, but people like Annie and Michael are fully committed to the fight. It's inspirational