BROOKLYN PARK, Minn. – Africans must break their silence and stop treating sexual education as a forbidden subject, if they want to survive HIV/AIDS, an epidemic that is increasingly threatening to destroy the “beauty of Africa,” a renowned Zambian activist, Princess Kasune Zulu, said.
“My brothers and sisters, taboos are killing us,” Zulu said. “Enough is enough. Until we accept that HIV and AIDS exist among us, we are fighting a losing battle.”
Zulu, who has been living with HIV for 10 years, spoke at North View Junior High School in Brooklyn Park, where dozens of African immigrants, health providers and anti-HIV/AIDS advocates gathered on Dec. 15 to observe African World AIDS Day. Zulu expressed concerns that – 25 years after HIV/AIDS became known – many Africans still saw the disease as taboo, a factor she said has contributed to the rampant spread of the epidemic.
“We need to do a better job,” Zulu, 31, said. “We need to break the silence, the discrimination and the stigma, the shame that is attached to HIV-positive people.”
Although only 11 percent of the world population lives in sub-Saharan Africa, 68 percent of the 33.2 million people infected with HIV worldwide live in the region, according to the 2007 UNAIDS report. There were approximately 1.7 new infections in the region last year, bringing the total population of HIV-positive people to 22.5 million.
Last year, 76 percent of all AIDS-related deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. Southern Africa was the worst-affected area, with national HIV prevalence rates exceeding 15 percent in eight countries. Unlike other regions, most of the people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are women, who account for 61 percent of all cases.
Zulu said that although money was important in caring for those infected, behavioral change was the single most important factor that could prevent new infections and eventually bring the disease to a manageable level.
“It doesn’t take money all the time to do something,” she said. “It’s our behaviors. It’s us saying no to the things that are killing us. We are a people who are strong and we need to show, even in HIV/AIDS, that we have come this far. Ignorance was one thing, now we know too much to remain silent. Until we accept our responsibility, nothing is going to change – not even the funds we’re being given by [President] Bush.”
And Zulu had evidence to prove that indeed one can do a lot without a single cent: Her own story. She was just a 14-year-old girl when she became the head of the household after losing her parents to AIDS. At 18, she married a man 25 years her senior, who she thought was going to help her out of her suffering.
“I was put in a situation where I had to get married at the age of 18,” she said. “Of course a boy my age couldn’t give me everything I needed. But little did I know that I was putting myself in the dangers of the commonly infected.”
In 1997, Zulu was diagnosed with HIV and immediately wanted to speak publicly about her status, although her husband did not approve. Soon afterwards, she was invited to a radio show to tell her story. That was the beginning of what she called, “A calling from God.” Her appearance earned her “Positive Living,” her radio show devoted to HIV/AIDS education, which she still hosts. A few weeks later, the U.S. Embassy in Zambia honored her for excellence in HIV/AIDS broadcasting.
Zulu is also famous in Zambia for posing as a hitchhiker to educate motorists who pick her up about HIV/AIDS.
“As crazy as that sounds, I thought if I could speak just to one truck driver, his wife and children would be protected,” she said.
Zulu took more responsibilities when World Vision, a U.S.-based international Christian charitable organization, asked her to represent it in her home country. But Zulu said that although she is a Christian, she joined World Vision because of the need she saw in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
“HIV and AIDS have thrown us the reality of life, the reality of sex and the reality of death, and there is no religion that can claim that it has been left untouched,” she said.
Going international has helped Zulu’s campaign against the epidemic and her advocacy for the disease’s most vulnerable victims: women, children and the poor. She has met with several world leaders including President Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to seek their commitment to tackling the AIDS epidemic.
Her own suffering as a teenager caring for her ailing parents, and later orphaned siblings, is without doubt what inspired her into action. That is the role she would like to see other HIV-positive people take, which she said would prevent new infections. But having such people come forward requires a society that understands the disease, Zulu said.
“It takes a certain kind courage to be able to say, ‘Look, I have this disease that is attached to something we do but don’t want to talk about: Sex,’” she said.
Zulu urged Africans to realize that their existence was in danger and put aside debates of whether AIDS was the consequence of irresponsible sexual practices. Considering the scope of the problem, such debates were immaterial, she said.
“If there is a fire in the room, what do you do?” she asked. “You gather everything you have got to put it out, and then you try to find out later how it started. If a snake enters the house, you kill it. You don’t ask where it entered from first. That’s exactly what we need to do with AIDS.”
Zulu called on her audience to take advantage of the free HIV testing that various health care providers offered onsite. She also asked parents to discuss sex and AIDS with their children to make sure they have the knowledge they need to stay safe, and to act as good examples to their children, because just talking won’t be enough.
“How many men will say, ‘Enough is enough. A real African man is going to stick to his only wife?’” she asked, as the men in the audience raised their hands, and the women screamed and applauded them. “But we also need women who are going to say no to married men.”