On a Continent Ravaged by AIDS, One Activist Finds Hope
Drawing an anguished silence from her audience Wednesday night, Miriam Zoll related part of a conversation between a friend visiting Namibia and women working in a cabbage patch there. According to Zoll, the Namibian women reacted to a question about where they directed their profits as if the answer were obvious and natural: “Well, of course, we’re buying coffins. We always need coffins.”
Zoll, who has done extensive research and writing on the subject, delivered a lecture titled “Social Justice, Gender and the Global HIV/AIDS Pandemic,” sponsored by Oberlin’s Center for Leadership in Health Promotion. She shared this story to illustrate how women in Sub-Saharan Africa are responsible for everything from the daily care of AIDS orphans to organizing burials.
Though these women may have more resources than others due to their cabbage patch, they still struggle to provide all of the care necessary to manage the widespread effects of AIDS. Zoll explained that women are largely unable to play a role in the already weak economies of the nations affected most by the pandemic due to an infrastructure that denies them education and power.
Compounding the issue is the sheer difficulty of soliciting funds from wealthier governments, especially when religious concerns about birth control or reservations about giving handouts enter into the equation.
“It’s about global geopolitical priorities…to some extent. If France had a pandemic,” Zoll mused, “there would be enough money.”
Zoll had strong criticism for world leaders, commenting at one point, “Were [AIDS] a person, it would walk around with a huge mirror [facing the world’s power brokers and saying] ‘I am here because you have not done the job you were supposed to do.’”
Still, “there is hope despite these numbers that [the situation is] only getting bigger,” she said.
Zoll cited cases of African men educating themselves about the pandemic, and urged that others not undervalue the contributions of men.
“There’s this mindset of ‘the women’s movement is only women,’” Zoll said, adding that this statement is being proven wrong as more men born into gendered systems of power realize that something is amiss.
“In 50 years, there will be a shift [towards gender equality in Africa,]” she predicted.
Zoll also offered a concrete plan to offset the consequences of the AIDS pandemic, in which she stressed the importance of donors providing money at the local level.
“Communities have responded in a way that governments have not been able to respond,” she said, pointing to the selflessness of African women caring for children of strangers who have passed away. She has met women who wonder how they will put food into 15 mouths.
“If they had 50 bucks, I don’t think they’re going to squander it,” Zoll said. “They are literally feeding these children by what’s on the tree,” she continued, reaching above her head to pick an imaginary piece of fruit and offering it to the audience.
“‘Here’s dinner, kids.’”