Good morning, here’s what keeps me up at night…

April 1, 2014

The following piece is adapted from a presentation given at the AVAC Partners’ Forum by Mannasseh Phiri, a columnist for Zambia’s Sunday Post and long-time HIV prevention advocate.

Several things really! First, at least one night every week I’m awake thinking which 1,000 words to write in my HIV/AIDS weekly newspaper column—before my deadline.

Secondly, elephants! The elephant in the room (that has brought us all together here in this forum!) is HIV—still consuming huge amounts of resources: financial, human, time, etc. There is a proverb from the eastern part of Zambia that says, “When ants are organized, they can kill an elephant”. I lie awake wondering why we, the ants in this room, are not well organized to fight this elephant that is HIV. Why do we in our countries do things differently from (and often without knowledge of) each other’s actions? Why for example is it that MSM/HIV research is permitted in Uganda, Kenya and Malawi where there are similar “colonial” laws criminalizing homosexuality to Zambia’s—where such research is not permitted?

In the Democratic Republic of Congo they have a nice Lingala proverb that says, “A dog has four legs but it only walks in one direction”. How many different directions are we walking as Africans—in HIV/AIDS prevention, research regulation, gay rights, etc?

The good people of Ghana have another proverb I like: “Like a turtle, a man should stick his neck out if he wants to go forward”. As advocates and activists we often must stick our neck out particularly on “sticky” issues. I recently had to go into hiding because I spoke out about homosexuality, MSM and HIV—and sections of Zambian society called for my arrest!

As for Uganda, I am even more confused now after hearing my long-time friend and activist Ruhakana Rugunda say that people of different sexual orientations should feel free to access health services without fear of discrimination! I am still looking for an appropriate African proverb for him and Uganda!

Finally, my five-year-old grandson Nicholas keeps me awake. Nicholas asks a lot of searching questions of me all the time. All of us have a Nicholas in our lives—young, inquisitive, innocent and searching for answers. I look at Nicholas’ eyes and I see him asking me “Koko! What kind of Zambia, Africa and world are you preparing today for my future? What if I am gay?” Look at and listen to your own Nicholas asking you tough questions and you will stay up at night too!