Translating Numbers Into People”
A Review of
28: Stories of AIDS IN AFRICA
by Stephanie Nolen.
Reviewed by Laretta Benjamin
“I looked at AIDS in Africa for a long time before I understood what I was seeing.” (1)
Stephanie Nolen’s opening words, as quoted above, seem to not only capture the reason for her writing but make a very insightful statement about many of us who live in this relatively safe and sheltered culture. We are bombarded daily with images, articles, and reports depicting so many of the sorrows of this world…AIDS…hunger….war….refugee camps…genocide…but how many of us see without really seeing, hear without really hearing, and form very shallow thoughts and ideas about these issues with no real understanding.
As part of a group that spent several months studying the issue of AIDS, I have read several books dealing with the AIDS epidemic (which only serves to let one know how much that one really doesn’t know). This book is by far one of the best. Stephanie Nolen very powerfully puts a human face on all the numbing statistics and brings an incredibly deep human dimension to the “savage phenomenon” known as AIDS. One of the very real struggles a great number of us have in attempting to wrap our minds around many of the crises of our time, of which AIDS certainly is one, is the ability to translate the numbers we hear into people – flesh and blood, feeling, suffering people. Another struggle we have is in interpreting the numbers. What do they say? What do they mean? What is behind them? What do they represent? What are the effects, the consequences, the ramifications of the numbers? How is life changed because of those numbers? Ms. Nolen does an outstanding job in addressing both of these struggles. Very simply, she helps us to really see, to really hear, to travel below the shallow surface where most of us are content to be and at least begin to understand.
In her first chapter, the author shares with us the events that brought her to the writing of this book. She also gives us in her opening pages a brief but very clear history of AIDS. Ms. Nolen gives just enough medical information so the lay person can begin to understand what scientists, researchers, doctors and nurses are up against. “In a Botswana research lab in 2003, I saw an electron-microscope picture of the human immunodeficiency virus for the first time. And I gasped out loud: HIV looks nasty, a ball bristling with small vicious spikes. One vaccine researcher in South Africa later confessed to me that she always pictures HIV with clawed feet and fangs; another told me he could swear that sometimes, when he is injecting the virus into cell cultures, he hears it give a B-movie villain’s ominous chuckle. The more I learned about the virus, the better I understood these brief episodes of melodrama in otherwise rational people. We know more about HIV than we do about any other microbe—any germ, any bacterium, or virus—in history. But HIV is both devious and complex in the way it operates, and it has thwarted more than twenty-five years of scientific effort to render it harmless or even slow its march.” (4) For those of us outside the medical profession, it’s not easy to sort through all the medical terms and jargon. Stephanie Nolen does a great job in sharing the history, some basic medical information and the story of the spread of this incredibly destructive virus. For those who would like to have a general understanding of AIDS, I don’t think you could do much better than chapter 1 of this book.
AIDS is a world-wide epidemic – many estimates say that close to 40,000,000 are infected— cases have been reported in every country of the world. Some areas are harder hit than others. Rates are growing faster in some parts of the world than in others. A few places are making progress in slowing its growth. Ms. Nolen focuses on Sub-Sahara Africa in this writing. “When I set out to write this book, in 2005, 70 percent of the burden of the disease in the global pandemic was in sub-Saharan Africa. At least twenty million Africans had died” (10) “Africa – where some countries have an HIV prevalence greater than 30 percent — offers a lesson for all of these [other] places, a grim example of what happens when we don’t react quickly or with openness to the spread of HIV” (p 11) Throughout the book, Ms. Nolen touches on many of the things that most likely made Africa so susceptible to the virus and its rapid spread — which makes for very informative and insightful reading – a wonderful glimpse into some of the many cultures of this incredible place called Africa. “AIDS is not an event, or a series of them; it’s a mirror held up to the cultures and societies we build. The pandemic, and how we respond to it, forces us to confront the tricky issues of sex and drugs and inequity. The spread of this one virus raises difficult questions about why we do the things we do, why we believe what we believe—about who we are and what we value.”(4)
Statistics say that 28 million people in Africa are infected with the HIV virus. Ms. Nolen shares with us the stories of 28 of those infected people – 1 for each million infected. Their stories are both amazing and disturbing and her writing draws you into their lives and their little piece of the world. Each chapter begins with a photograph of the person whose life is being shared which helps immensely in making their stories more human—more real and more true. Their HIV infection is like a small ripple in the water that grows into a giant wave, touching so many lives physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and culturally. As this book and the stories it so powerfully shares shows us, particularly in Africa, AIDS has changed the face of communities in unimaginable ways. “Few people outside Africa seem to understand the scale or epic gravity of what is happening there. When I talk to people at home about the pandemic, I get the sense that they feel a dying African is somehow different from a dying Canadian, American or German—that Africans have lower expectations or place less value on their lives. That to be an orphaned fifteen year old thrust into caring for four bewildered siblings, or a teacher thrown out of her house after she tells her husband she is infected—that somehow this would be less terrifying or strange for a person in Zambia or Mozambique than it would be for someone in the United States or Britain.” (p 15)
Confines of space here help in overcoming the temptation to share a little about each of the 28 lives laid out before us on the pages of this book. It would be my hope that many would want to read this book – to get an unforgettable glimpse of real people in a real place dealing with the very real suffering that comes an infection and illness that destroys not only a body but families and communities. As Ms. Nolen points out, the AIDS bandwagon has come and gone several times over the past few years but the disease and the resulting brokenness and destruction remain. My response to her writing is thankfulness to God that He is present and He is at work and He can be trusted with all of the sorrows and crises of our world. May we be open to the compassion and involvement to which we are called.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com