It’s estimated there are 44-million people living with HIV/AIDS. To many, that figure is too large and too impersonal to understand. But a Zambian woman hopes to change that. She’s come to the United States to help Americans see HIV/AIDS through African eyes.
Doras Chirwa says she once thought HIV/AIDS happened to other families, other communities, not hers. But that was before. Before her sister and two brothers died from the disease – and more recently her 16-year-old niece.
"I remember when we started hearing about HIV/AIDS, it was like a disease of the next village. We’ve heard that in that town that there’s somebody with HIV/AIDS. It was something that we or I personally thought would not affect me. It was like it’s the other people it’s not me. It’s in my neighbor’s neighborhood or it’s in the next town - until it happened to me. I mean, I had dreams. I had ambitions. And everything just changed for me dramatically," she says.
One of the biggest changes followed the death of her eldest sister, who left behind four children.
"Those four children moved into my house. I had to take care of the four children since in my family I was the only one that had the means to do so. So, I became a mother of seven. I had three of my own and I have a small flat. Suddenly everything just changed. The house was crowded. There was more noise. The resources were overstretched. And I said, so, this is what it means," she says.
Doras Chirwa says it was so difficult at times she would lock herself in her room and cry. Now, however, she describes herself as a proud mother of seven.
She is in the United States to launch a photo exhibit in Columbus, Ohio called HIV Positive: AIDS through the Lens. In April 2002, Ms. Chirwa, who works for the humanitarian group CARE, traveled throughout Zambia with a group of Canadian photographers. They chronicled how Zambians have stood up to the pandemic.
She says, "Zambians are a resilient people and you see it in these images that are displayed."
In fact, Ms. Chirwa says CARE’s programs and those supported by USAID have been successful. The HIV prevalence rate, she says, has dropped from 20 percent of the adult population to 16 percent. She also says peer education programs have dramatically reduced the prevalence rate among young people.
Ms. Chirwa says she hopes that by speaking to Americans – and displaying the photos – she will help them better understand the pandemic.
"Most Americans are not aware. They’ve heard of statistics. But statistics most of the time do not make a lot of sense, they just overwhelm people. And it’s like, well, if that is the problem it’s so huge there’s nothing that can be done about it. But when they listen to many stories that women, children and men experience in Africa it just brings it closer to home," she says.
She disagrees with those who debate whether prevention or treatment programs are more important. She says a balance between the two must be struck. Doras Chirwa says she is fighting to stop HIV/AIDS so more people don’t lose loved ones and wonder: what would have been?