As this year began, the United Nations reported that nearly 31 million adults and 2.5 million children were living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Sub-Saharan Africa is by far the hardest-hit region. With just over 10 percent of the world's population, it is home to more than two-thirds of all people living with HIV. More than 1.5 million Africans died of AIDS last year. While the statistics themselves are dramatic, a Christian humanitarian organization is trying to dramatize the issue in a more personal way. World Vision is taking two portable African villages on tour across the United States. As Tom Banse reports, the exhibit designers confront the question of how to get everyday Americans to care about AIDS in Africa.
World Vision's Jonathan Brown wants to convince Americans there are worse problems than high gas prices. Top of his list: the worldwide AIDS epidemic. "It's the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time."
Infection rates in the U.S. have fallen dramatically, but AIDS continues to make millions of widows and orphans in Africa. In some countries, like Lesotho, almost one in four adults is infected. However, Brown and the international aid group he works for noticed that repeating such facts doesn't move many people to action. "We had to quit assuming that people were going to care about the headlines and read them," he explains. "As we talked about it, quit assuming they would listen and that would be motivational enough. We had to show the story and show the reality of it and then offer hope in it as well."
The result is a pair of touring mini-African villages. Jonathan Brown manages the West Coast version of the Immersion Experience... sights, sounds, smells, and all.
Today, thatched huts, a roadside cafe, a spartan health clinic, and grimy children's bedrooms have sprouted in a church gym in Tacoma, Washington. Exhibit-goers listen through headphones as they are introduced to a young narrator who will guide them through the maze. For about 20 minutes, they walk in the narrator's shoes.
"My name is Kombo," he tells them. "I live in Kenya. This is my story..." They learn that Kombo is 8 years old. He lives with his mother at one of the many truck stops along a two-lane road that has come to be known as the "AIDS Highway."
As visitors leave the village, they're invited to sponsor an orphaned or vulnerable child in Africa.
Volunteers Jim and Lynn Kelly have minded the exit since the tour started. "Wherever it goes, we go!" says Jim with a laugh. Lynn notes that they've stopped in nearly two dozen states in the last nine months, "so definitely did a lot of traveling."
Jim is a retired sheriffs deputy; Lynn, a retired nurse. The Kellys sold their house in the Seattle suburbs and bought an RV to follow the AIDS village. "We already sponsor four kids," Lynn says. "We figured we just can't keep sponsoring more and more kids ourselves, but we can help other people to sponsor kids." Jim adds, "We wanted to do more. We just felt we have a short time here on Earth. It was more important to invest in people's lives rather than a golf score or a stamp collection or something like that."
As we talk, a class of seventh graders from a Christian school enters the mock village. The students get quieter and quieter as their headphones bring bad news about the character they've stepped into. "I am so sorry, Kombo," they hear a clinic worker say. "I am afraid you do have the big disease..."
Is immersion a way to make people care? It seemed to work for students Allison and Mark. "We should care the same about them because we're all equal," Allison notes. Mark admits, "Before I went in here, I knew they had AIDS problems. But I just kind of like ignored it. Now that I went through, I realize how bad it is and how hard they've had it. With enough people we could prevent this, if we do it the right way and work together."
Since World Vision's AIDS Experience began its tour last August, 80,000 people have walked through the villages, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and President Bush's daughter Jenna. Each visitor represents a potential victory in what tour manager Jonathan Brown calls a war on apathy. "If what's happening in Africa doesn't motivate me as a human, as somebody that cares about lives of other people, then I'm probably not going to care about someone next door either."
World Vision hopes to reach 200,000 Americans with the free exhibit by the end of this year.