Toronto is abuzz as twenty four thousand delegates from all over the world congregate for the opening of the 16th International AIDS Conference. It is such a diverse city in itself that the faces from all over the world seem to blend naturally into the fabric of the city. It is a pleasant city- a bit like New York without the edge and the people are warm, friendly and so welcoming that at times, I wonder if the whole city has been sent to charm school in preparation for hosting this conference.
A friend from London is surprised at how friendly the attendants in the coffee shop he pops into for a sandwich are. He says he’s been going to the same coffee shop in London for a year, and has never been greeted as warmly as he was on entering this Toronto café for the second time yesterday.
The newspapers and televisions are awash with reports about the conference and about HIV/AIDS beaming a huge searchlight on the various issues that HIV/AIDS highlights- politics, gender, legal, economic, medical and social- these are all facets of the pandemic and this is echoed in the huge diversity of delegates to the conference. Activists with brightly coloured hair and multiple piercings rub shoulders with distinguished professors, political leaders, sedate grandmothers and boisterous youths from all over the world. It is a world in a city, and all brought together by what continues to be a global crisis- the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
I have now been in Toronto for three days, attending and speaking at the pre-conference workshop for journalists organized by the National Press Foundation for journalists covering the AIDS conference. Having successfully (I think) conducted my session on basic epidemiology for journalists; I have met journalists from a wide array of countries. I am impressed by their commitment and understanding, and enlightened by the insights they provide. For instance, some journalists from China speak of the difficulties in accurately holding government agencies to account on HIV in a country where official information is very tightly controlled. I half-jokingly suggest that they speak to the two Nigerian journalists present to gain insights into how they coped during the Abacha years. There are two Nigerian journalists present- Bimbola Odumosu, health editor for Radio Lagos and Ebere Ahanihu, Assistant Features Editor of The Guardian. He has just completed a book chronicling the history of HIV in Nigeria and I tell him how impressed I am that he is documenting what is surely a very important part of our nation’s history.
Yesterday I attended another historical event- the inauguration of the African/Black Diaspora Stream at the International AIDS Conference at City Hall Toronto. This is the first time this has been done, and the idea is to bring together delegates and experts from Africa as well as Africans living and working on HIV related issues to form a network through which they can discuss and seek ways of working together. Sitting in the cavernous Council chambers, it is interesting to see, for instance, the disparities among the different European Union countries in terms of their approach to immigrants with HIV and in terms of what services they provide. There are several powerful speakers, but Winnie Sseruma, chairperson of the UK based African HIV Policy Network stands out in my mind with her exhortation to organizations working with Africans and black people on HIV/AIDS issues to make involvement in policy making a priority. As she puts it, “If you are just concentrating on delivering services and are not involved in lobbying and policy making, then you are doing something wrong” It’s an important point which appears to have struck a chord with the audience.
There are presentations from the Ontario Minister of Health and from one of the Toronto city councilors and when we retire for the evening reception, a powerful performance from Sheryl Lee Ralph, the American actress and entertainer. In an extremely moving performance, she provides excerpts from her one woman show “Sometimes I cry”- which explores the voices of women affected by HIV. The monologues are all based on true stories and she brings many in the audience to the brink of tears. By the time she finishes the piece entitled “My African Sister, Ms Ralph is herself in tears, as the character recounts how her sister died as a result of HIV despite being faithful and always doing what she was told, infected by her feckless husband. As she recites the words “He never told her before he died, it was a secret- ah so many secrets….” The audience nod vigorously. Ms Ralph is a consummate performer and she glides smoothly through various accents and personas as she gives voice to the various female faces of the epidemic- now weeping, now laughing; now singing- she takes questions from the audience at the end. Apparently she presented the piece at the recent Leon Sullivan Summit in Abuja and many African leaders present said how she had brought the reality of HIV home to them in a way in which the numerous briefings they have had have not.
Today again is an inspiring day- listening to Stephen Lewis the UN Secretary General’s envoy is electrifying. He is that rare thing- a subversive in the Establishment and as he discusses strategies for tackling the pharmaceutical companies, the G8, patent laws, the WTO, the audience swoons with admiration. But he is not the only hero of the session, organized by Medecins Sans Frontieres to highlight the challenges still faced in bringing anti-retroviral treatment to all the people that need it worldwide. There is Anil from the Clinton Foundation who speaks eloquently of the efforts that the Fund is making in negotiating with pharmaceutical companies. Then there is Anand Grover the Indian patent rights lawyer who speaks of the efforts of his organization, The Lawyers’ Collective to ensure that unfair patent laws pushed by the pharmaceutical companies and the World Trade Organization are resisted vigorously in India. His presentation is fascinating and draws applause several times. I wonder if there are lessons to be learned for Nigeria. There is also Ibrahim Umoru, a peer advisor with Medecins Sans Frontieres in Lagos who speaks with passion and occasional humour of the challenges he faced accessing anti-retroviral drugs since his diagnosis in 2001. His passion enthuses the audience and as he pleads with them to join Medicins Sans Frontieres in ensuring access to drugs for all who need them, I am proud of him as a fellow Nigerian. This is the other face of HIV, the empowerment that I see in many Nigerians as a result of their battles to live.
As I make my way to the opening ceremony, I realize that as always, this is going to be an inspiring and educative conference.