Travels in Africa (part 2)

PHOTO BY JERRY SCHARF | View from plane approaching airport at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


Our wild-eyed ride through Nairobi’s poor eastside ends abruptly as we pass through the gates of the Safari Park Hotel.

Within minutes, we’re being handed hot towels to press to our travel-weary faces, sipping cold mango drinks and nodding replies to the hotel staff’s Swahili greeting: Jambo! The word means “hello,” but it is never expressed with anything less than gushing enthusiasm.

We are in Nairobi to learn about Africa’s AIDS relief efforts and World Vision’s philosophy towards humanitarian work.

Safari Park Hotel is a former Officer’s Club for the British Army. It is 80 acres of lush gardens, pools and lawns surrounded by high fencing patrolled by men carrying assault rifles.

Just outside the hotel lobby sits a cage inhabited by two African Gray Parrots. Walk up to them and they silently peer back at you. Walk away, and they launch into a repertoire that includes every variation of wolf whistle you’ve ever heard. Just as you are wondering what unsavory company they have been keeping, they surprise you with a precisely whistled rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” or a Sousa march, or a Verdi overture.

PHOTO BY JERRY SCHARF One of Safari Park's wolf-whistling parrots.
PHOTO BY JERRY SCHARF | One of Safari Park’s wolf-whistling parrots.

As full of surprises as the parrots is a South African woman with a lilting voice and a matching personality. She has led us, unabashedly, in silly songs in stretching breaks during morning conference sessions. But when the aptly named Eulogia “Logy” Murray takes to the podium, we realize that she is not there to merely entertain us.

With a rapid-fire delivery and impeccable organization, she outlines for us the profound physical, emotional and social costs that HIV/AIDS is extracting from the world in general and Africa in particular.

Her understanding of the issues is encyclopedic, yet she delivers her message not as a lecture, but as a collaborative exercise. She presents information and we draw the conclusions.

Her passion, we learn, is driven by her faith and by a need to address the unconscionable ignorance with which the Christian community has responded to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

I’m surprised to learn that I am as ignorant as any.

Among her key messages:

The stubborn, false idea that HIV/AIDS got its start in Northern Cailfornia’s gay community. It has long been known that HIV/AIDS was first transmitted to human beings through the butchering and consumption of Chimpanzees and monkeys in central Africa. The timing of the virus’ identification in gay men led to the widespread belief that AIDS got its start in the homosexual community. It has existed in Africa as “the Slimming Illness,” since the 1930s.

The tendency to view HIV/AIDS as a threat to “high-risk groups” such as homosexuals, drug users and prostitutes. In some areas, the fastest growing number of HIV/AIDS infection is among affluent communities with the financial means to buy sex.

No one has ever died of AIDS. The syndrome simply makes those infected more susceptible to diseases, many of which are curable. With medication, good nutrition and the avoidance of exposure to illness, those with HIV or AIDS can live long lives. Consequently, we should not view AIDS infection as a death sentence.

The tide of HIV and AIDS can be turned back with public education. Uganda, once home to the fastest growing incidences of HIV/AIDS, is reversing the growth through public education and new public health policies.

One of the cruelest ironies of the incalculable human misery caused by AIDS in Africa is what it has done to a thousand-year-old social safety net. Logy and others discussed the fact that Africa had never before needed orphanages. Traditionally, when a child became orphaned, he or she was taken in by relatives, friends or neighbors.

It was a common and cherished social safety net that HIV/AIDS has overburdened and finally torn apart. With millions of children being orphaned, friends and neighbors can no longer take them in. As a result, elderly grandparents and older siblings are being forced to shoulder the support of many families.

Unable to successfully undertake the subsistence farming that their mothers and fathers had done to support them, many of these families wind up in urban slums where, incredibly, it is safer than in the African bush.

It’s an African fact of life that we tend to forget. If you’re homeless in America you have lots of things to worry about. If you’re homeless in Africa, you have the same things to worry about, PLUS, some of the biggest, most terrifying animals on the planet.

Soon, we would meet a woman who spent several weeks homeless in the hills of Africa. She cowered in a makeshift shelter of brush, and spent each night listening to hyenas and desperately praying that they would not find her. Her three young children were with her.