Africa 420 (The Africa Diaries) Part Two

Published 22, Nov, 2012

Follow along on the second part of the journey as Ed Wolf arrives in Uganda, part of a mission to provide training tools for counseling women participating in HIV microbicide (vaginal gels) trials. He used Facebook to keep a record of his experiences.

Part One saw Ed leave his native San Francisco and fly to Johannesburg and then on to Durban and Kampala, Uganda. You can read that episode here.

April 18 

On the flight to Uganda yesterday I got up to stretch my legs. I stood back in the galley area, near the toilets, looking out the window. We were flying over a vast confluence. Two mighty rivers, flowing into a delta, all merging together to form a magnificent waterway. There were no roads or houses as far as I could see. Just mile after mile after mile of canopy and wild river. It was one absolutely perfect moment. 

Got up this morning to find a newspaper pushed under the hotel room door. Headlines: “Police vow to block Besigye walk today.” Besigye is the Ugandan opposition leader who was wounded during the protest the other day. Everyone seems calm in the lobby. Our cab driver says he knows a march is planned, but he isn’t worried. When we get to the training, we find out that Mr. Besigye has been arrested and jailed. 

The training goes very well. At lunch, one of the counselors tells me the protests are only the beginning of something bigger that’s coming. She talks about the corruption of African leaders, how happy people were when Obama got elected. She says they had all hoped Barack would set an example to their own leaders. She gets quiet and then adds: “The price of independence here is going to be very expensive.” 

It's 4 a.m. here in Uganda and we're getting ready to get in an airport shuttle. Next stop, Zimbabwe. The newspaper has just been slid under my door. The ominous headline: "Death toll rises to 4 as army steps in." There's also a sidebar article that says: "UCC (Uganda Communications Commission) orders 24-hour shutdown of Facebook." My thoughts are with the people of Uganda and as we slip out of the dark city. 

April 19

12 hours later, we’re safe and sound in Harare, Zimbabwe. Rush hour, sputtering minivans full of people, women walking with impossibly large bundles on their heads, children in perfectly pressed school uniforms. Palm trees, weeping willows, unidentifiable trees towering over all the rest. Black and white birds overhead, musical calls to one another. Smells of coffee and flowers. We’ve got 4 days here . . . Yes!  

April 20 

Wifi has been down for 2 days. Had another great clinic visit. Everyone from the MDs and RNs to the counselors and outreach workers are so dedicated to the study. I do an opening activity in the training where people Agree or Disagree to statements I read aloud. Most agree with this statement: One of the ultimate goals of these trials is to allow women to enjoy having sex without fear of becoming infected with HIV. 

A young man called out to me thru the fence around the clinic. When he put his hand thru, I held it in mine. “Who are you?” he asked. I told him I was a conducting an HIV training. He said he’d been living with HIV all his life (his mom had died of AIDS) and hoped that we were going to do something about the terrible stigma he was experiencing. I told him there was stigma in the US as well. He couldn’t believe it. 

 roadside artists in Zimbabwe 

Tomorrow’s our last training. We’re conducting it in a thatch-roofed building in a garden, the perfect way to bring our work to a close. We’ll head back to Jo’berg on Friday, my colleagues continuing on to the US, me staying behind. On Saturday morning, a driver will pick me up and drive me deep into Kruger National Park, where I’ll stay in one of a group of bungaloes (surrounded by an electric fence) for 6 days. 

Ed and thatched hut training

April 21

We just finished our last training. We’re kinda at a loss. We’ve worked so hard . . . and it has paid off. 3 countries, 4 cities, 6 trainings, 200+ trainees. The participants feel the enhanced counseling approach we’ve brought will help their work with their clients. I left San Francisco two weeks ago tonight. It doesn’t seem possible. I don’t remember the last time I felt so tired and so fulfilled at the same time. 

The approach we taught is one that all providers should use: patient-centered, non-prescriptive, exploratory, empowering. You (not your doctor, dentist, gyno or therapist) are the expert on the issues of your life. Others can help us help ourselves, but only by 1st knowing what we feel, think and know about the issue being discussed. This strategy is also very culturally competent, as we found out these past 2 weeks. 

Grace, Kennedy, Nazira, Tebogo, Mamolefe, Pearl, Angel, Faith, Godspower, Zodwa, Nukuthula, Dolly, Professor, Philisiwe, Nompumelelo, Qcinile, Jabu, Selvemoney, Tholakele, Lulu, Mandisa, Maletsatsi, Thoko, Lebo, Xolelwa, Noleen, Mpilo, Dudu, Busisiwe, Tandiswa, Zanele, Bongiwe, Mtokosizi: so many beautiful African names. Even tho I struggled at times, everyone got my name immediately. Sometimes they called me Eddie! 

Tomorrow brings a difficulty and a sadness; saying goodbye to A and R, my extraordinary colleagues. We’ve laughed and cried and been amazed and frustrated. We’ve leaned on each other so much and so often as we’ve traveled up and down this extraordinary continent. We knew the power and import of what we were doing . . . the preparation, the anticipation, the arrival, the delivery . . . and now, the letting go. 

April 22

Left Harare this a.m., Good Friday, streets full of people in white, marching, singing. The missionaries have done their work here; Easter is a big holiday all over Africa. Our driver said white men are not the problem; it’s their own leaders. He said people keep looking to the future, rather than trying to do something now to make things better. September elections are coming; he’s worried they’ll be tampered with. 

 Sat next to an incredible woman on the plan to Jo’berg. She was so moved by the work we’d been doing here. She’d lost a brother to AIDS and a child to cancer. Oh, what a soulful talk we had. Her father was the first President of Zimbabwe and when he lost his son in 1986, he warned all the citizens about this strange new disease. They did not believe him til several years later, when many Zimbabwans began to die. 

Arrived in Jo’berg and suddenly A and R were gone, going home to the US. I was moving on to other adventures. The airport is 4 stories high, concourse after concourse, immense numbers of people. Again I was struck by the power and beauty of the diversity all around me. As I stepped through the arrival gates, Joni Mitchell’s voice filled the entire airport: “Don’t it always seem to go . . .” I burst into tears. 

I’ll be picked up shortly for the the day-long drive to Kruger Nat’l Park. There I’ll stay at a camp in the bush for a week and (hopefully) have some close encounters with the other inhabitants of Africa: the wildlife. There will be morning/evening walks and daytime drives. I suspect that I’ll be off the grid and unable to post to Facebook, but I’ll bring my camera and notebook and fill you in when I return, April 28. 

April 22

Many thanks for accompanying me on my journey. Wifi has been erratic, making it impossible for individual responses. But please know how much your thoughtful/caring responses have meant to me. It’s kept me grounded and brought focus to what I’ve been experiencing. I always plan to keep a travel journal, but never do. Because of you and FB, I now have a record of this incredible experience. Big love from a big land! 

April 28

Dear All . . . I have returned to Johannesberg, safe and sound, sun burned and exhausted. I’ve seen everything from rhinos and hippos and lions to monitor lizards, turtles and centipedes. Extraordinary experiences. But it’s been the landscape that has moved me the most. Vast open spaces, full of the original inhabitants. “Let it all in,” the savannah speaks . . . and then, “Let it all go,” in a whisper. More to come. 

April 29

Repacking my bags for tonight’s flight, feeling grateful, amazed, tired, emotional; on the verge of tears. So many good cries this trip; for the diversity of the people, the dedication of staff working in clinics, the women who are using the products which will hopefully, someday, be available to women around the world. And for the wildlife, continuing to find ways to survive in their ever-shrinking environments. 

April 29

Thank you Africa: an incredible experience. Thanks to all who drove me safely around, welcomed me to hotels and clinics, brought food, left chocolate on my pillow. Thanks to all who spoke to me of Africa, it’s challenges and hopes. Thanks to those who sat nearby, riding through the wilds, looking for lions. Thanks again to A and R for being great colleagues. Now, the inevitable ending to any great adventure: Home!