Mashed yam with fish sauce. Again. I was eating dinner with some Togolese friends, finishing up a platter of the dish that is a frequent feature of my diet here in West Africa. I actually still like the food after a year working here for the Peace Corps but, contemplating the meal, I think my mind had begun to wander.
Then Valerie, a local schoolteacher, turned to me, and as I recall said: "Jean-Marc, remember the local organization that got money from an international organization for orphans with HIV/AIDS? They asked me to help identify orphans in Kpalimé. Well, I went out to do a count and none of them have HIV or AIDS. There are no AIDS orphans."
I wasn't sure if I heard her correctly at first. I've tried hard not to lose awareness of the pain that surrounds me, but sometimes I can't help protecting myself from the reality of poverty, disease, and death by temporarily tuning out. Or by trying to make some of the horror simply part of my daily routine.
Then I heard her.
"What do you mean none of them has HIV/AIDS?" I was stunned. I've heard stories about people infected with AIDS. I've seen real sickness. I've watched the funeral processions.
"Well," she responded, "we walked around all day, visited house after house, and people there said none of the babies had HIV or AIDS. Even when I asked family members, they told me the same thing. No HIV/AIDS."
I know what you're thinking. How can you say there is no HIV/AIDS? Sub-Saharan Africa is ground zero for the AIDS pandemic.
According to recent UN statistics, just over 10 percent of the world's population lives in the region, but it is home to two-thirds of all people living with HIV.