I’m back, tired - no, exhausted beyond words – but happy to be home, to see my dogs, my partner and to have survived what turned out to be a sometimes harrowing but hugely adventuresome trip of a lifetime.
A friend of mine who lives in Durban warned me when I met up with him on my first day, “South Africa is not for sissies.” There is danger on the streets – one of my fellow Canadian delegates fell victim to that fact – life is hard for many who live there and the nation has a history which personifies oppression and suffering. But it is also a joyful nation, a dancing, singing nation, one that has beaten apartheid and is beating the scourge of AIDS like few others.
So that’s the environment one is tossed into as soon as your plane lands while one grapples with the logistics of finding your place in this giant and unruly microcosm of life on this planet. And then joining 17,000 other people from around the world converging in a common cause. That cause has never been more clear – to end AIDS.
This is heavy stuff to navigate. It’s natural that at times throughout the week it overwhelms, brings tears to the eyes and ultimately feels heartbreaking to leave.
Many have remarked that the conference was light on real news or scientific breakthroughs. It felt odd. We came a long way to hear little that was new, yet it seemed momentous all the same. Here is how the IAS themselves summarized its key points…
- Advances in HIV prevention, including new data on access to and use of PrEP; HVTN 702, the study that could lead to the first approved vaccine for HIV; and new research advancing the search for microbicides, long-acting prevention, and multi-purpose prevention technologies.
- Successes in treatment scale-up, and new efforts to close the treatment gap and move towards the global 90-90-90 targets for testing, access to treatment and viral suppression.
- The extraordinary impact of HIV on young people, especially on adolescent girls and young women, and the vital contributions of young people to the AIDS response.
- The detrimental impact of laws and policies that stigmatize or criminalize sexuality, sex work, transgender identity, drug use, and living with HIV.
- And hundreds of other topics related to every aspect of the global epidemic and response
You can tell they are stretching. And yet our collective look at where we are at, where we need to go and how to get there was complete, riveting and inspiring. So too was the awe inspiring march through the streets of downtown Durban led by South African and global activists which, according to AIDS2016, “helped to focus the conference, the city, and the world on the need to redouble our efforts to meet global prevention and treatment targets, accelerate research, fully fund the AIDS response, and honour and respect the human rights of all people living with or affected by HIV.”
That march was quite wondrous. We Canadian, wearing blue T-shirts, were lost in a sea of thousands and thousands of white shirted Africans singing dancing and chanting like there was no tomorrow. It was one of the highlights of the conference, I’m sure, for all who participated. Yebo!
Then, as if to illustrate the extremes which percolate this extraordinary country, the sweaty Canadians were off to a swanky beach-side reception to meet the Minister of Health, Jane Philpott over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. That too made a huge impression. In fact this approachable Minister’s ongoing and active presence throughout the conference did not go unnoticed. We knew we had an ally in government who got it. It was deeply appreciated.
But in many ways the highlights of the week were not even related to the conference. The people I talked to, black South Africans in particular who uber-shuttled me back and forth to the conference each day, were warm and interesting and wonderful. They helped me understand South Africa. I learned about the country’s history, its politics, its culture, its way of life. And later, I learned about its natural history, which is how I will end this account.
Although expensive for even a one-day experience, booking a safari trip seemed like a must. So I did and saw lion, elephant, zebra, giraffe, rhino, baboons and water buffalo in their natural habitat, some at extremely close quarters. Being in the bush itself was amazing too, but our close (too close) encounter with a hornery male elephant, my photos of which you see here, easily qualifies as one of the most exciting experiences of my entire life. Next day I left for home, feeling drained beyond belief.
What a note on which to leave. What a trip!
iPhone Photos by Bob Leahy