Friday, August 19, 2011

What 24% HIV+ Really Means

When I first for my Peace Corps assignment, all that I was told was that I’d be in Lesotho, working with communities on HIV/AIDS. I was very excited about living in Lesotho, but less so about working on the AIDS pandemic. It just seemed like such a monumental and depressing task. We were told that the official prevalence rate was 24% of people in Lesotho were infected with HIV. It sounds like a lot, but it is totally different to be in the middle of it, to see all the sickness and death. It’s everywhere and it effects everyone. It has decimated such a friendly, loving people. After being here for a year and seeing its terrible pervasive effects, I wouldn’t want to focus on anything else. Even though the average family has 3-4 children, there is still negative population growth, it’s that bad.

In my village there aren’t really any good figures on how many people are infected. There is a lot of stigma and prejudice about being HIV positive, so most people won’t talk about it (which is a big part of the problem). But in my village of 204 families, there are 85 children who have lost one parent, and 33 children who have lost both parents and are still in primary/elementary school.

Besides teaching about HIV in the schools, I am helping to start a community center in my village. One that focuses on orphans, a place where they can have a community garden and chicken coup, so they can have a regular source of healthy food. The center will also provide classes for out of school youth and a variety of workshops. The purpose of the center is to be a resource, to address whatever issues or needs the community thinks are the most important. HIV prevention and education are going to be a big part, and I really hope it helps. As one village woman said during my household survey, “the biggest problem in the village is that children keep dying.”

Sunday, August 7, 2011

2 Weeks Being an American Again

I left my freezing, sleepy village in Lesotho in the middle of winter for two weeks of summer back in the U.S. with friends and family. I can only imagine what I looked like in the airport when I arrived. After traveling for days and with dirt from the village still ground in, smiling and crying at everything. I hadn’t seen my family in a year. It doesn’t sound that long, but living in a rural village that did not have electricity, computers or TV, the pace was unbelievably slow. Since I was back where I had access to a car and a phone with almost unlimited minutes, I was able to fit practically an entire summer into two weeks. I went swimming, ice skating, to the movies, grilled burgers and had picnics. But the best part of being back in the U.S. was definitely being with my friends and family. I was really touched by how far some of my friends traveled and how they rearranged their schedules and lives for me. I was relieved to find that our relationships had not seemed to have changed. We had new stories and new jobs or schools, but we were still just us, excited to be catching up after so long.

I also met with my professors and did some research while I was in the U.S. I compiled all the data from my household survey and looked for correlations. I found some interesting relationships between gender and life satisfaction. Even though (or perhaps because of) all the domestic work that women do, the many hours a day they spend doing chores, they generally claimed to have a higher level of life satisfaction. My village very recently got electricity, and it will be interesting to see how it changes their lives. Electrification potentially may impact women more because of all the time intensive chores that would change. And possibly, women will not spend as many hours together socializing during chores and electricity may negatively impact their social ties in a way that it doesn’t for men. It will be interesting to actually see the relationship and changes between gender equity and development in my village.

After being gone for a year, several things about the U.S. surprised me. How green and leafy everything was. Also how dependent everyone seemed on their phones, which seem to be getting alarmingly smart. And how much of people’s lives were online now, updating everything on Facebook. It seemed to me that we in the U.S. are so wrapped up in our electronics and our digital lives that there must be so much that we are missing. The pace of life in the U.S. was alarming, it felt almost uncontrollably fast. I think that impression came from being away from it all for 13 months, but also that things have actually gotten faster. So many things are instantly available. I miss my friends and family immensely, I also often miss the access and ability to get things done so quickly, but I’m a little scared of returning to that accelerating pace and way of life. Luckily for me, I’m back in Lesotho for another entire year.