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Chicago Exhibit Shows How Africa Fights AIDS - 2002-11-26

The spread of AIDS has stabilized in recent years among most segments of the United States population. But, in Africa, the disease continues to spread rapidly. The United Nations estimates more than 28 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are living with AIDS or the virus that causes it, HIV. A new exhibit in Chicago shows how Africa is trying to educate its people on AIDS prevention. It includes materials ranging from scholarly reports to artwork.

The exhibit at Northwestern University is aimed at showing that even on a continent where AIDS seems to be raging out of control, people are hopeful of fighting the disease. David Easterbrook, curator of the university's Herskovits Library, is a co-creator of the exhibit, called "Celebrating World AIDS Day: AIDS in Africa." He points to a small pyramid of dolls made in South Africa and says it tells a story of how family and community support is one weapon against AIDS.

"It shows the wife at the top of the tower. She has just learned that her husband is HIV positive and she has reported this to her community," he explains. "Her sisters and relatives form this human tower to put her at the top and protect her from her husband."

And that seems to be the main point of this exhibit: that ordinary people are just as important as governments in fighting AIDS.

"One of the things we are trying to do in this exhibit is to show the very amazing extent to which communities are mobilized in Africa to promote the ideas of protecting oneself from HIV infection," he said.

The exhibit includes music, like that from a Ugandan group called The AIDS Support Organization Choir. The choir is made up of people with AIDS or HIV. It travels throughout Africa with messages of AIDS education and hope.

"We know that in South Africa and throughout all of Africa, music and art and commemorative cloth have been an important expression of community spirit, of resistance to apartheid and colonialism and we are seeing the same thing with messages about fighting HIV and AIDS."

And there are pamphlets: on how to use condoms to help prevent the spread of HIV, on what to do if someone you know is infected. Mr. Easterbrook says books in the exhibit range from thick reports done by scholars and government organizations to small books on AIDS prevention designed for children.

"As soon as schoolchildren are reading, they are reading material like this that we have on display."

The fight against AIDS is also being waged on television. Visitors can watch a series of short videos produced by African directors, and based on ideas submitted by young people in West Africa. In one story, called, "The Voice of Reason," a father agrees to let his young daughter marry an older man. He is later haunted by a dream.

"I have something to say to you. I am the AIDS virus. Think long and hard before you give your daughter to that man. He has lots of mistresses and he does not take me (AIDS) seriously. Think above all of your daughter's health."

The United Nations says one reason for the high rates of HIV and AIDS among young African women is the early age at which many of them marry, and the often great age difference between the women and their husbands.

Another example of mass media AIDS education is a television and radio drama series in South Africa called Soul City. Mr. Easterbrook says it is a wildly popular program that often incorporates AIDS education messages in its scripts.

"Increasingly, African countries have come to the realization that the way to get the message out is to get it out. So, the reluctance to promote safe sex and distribute condoms and so forth is greatly reduced."

Northwestern University's Herskovits Library is the nation's oldest and largest library dedicated to the study of Africa. Mr. Easterbrook hopes the exhibit reminds Americans who see it that while AIDS is largely under control in much of the United States, the battle is far from over elsewhere in the world.