Notes From Toronto: Ike Anya at the 16th International AIDS Conference

by Ike Anya

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.

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2 comments April 21, 2007 - 3:03 pm

Dear Ike,

Some weeks ago at Earls Court, Empirio Armani hosted a concert, a parade, a catwalk for AIDS in Africa . I could only catch the stuff on TV. Thank God. I would have puked.

The place was star studded. 50cents, JayZ, Beyonce Leonardo Capri etc etc. music and food, after show sex awwuff.

Nobody talked about AIDS. Through out the show.(only Leonard DiCaprio) It was about the clothes this one or that one wore, Kate Moss planting a kiss on Pamela Anderson etc etc. they were just feeding on the African aids catastrophe, using it too take glory.

I judge your XVI International AIDS Conference in the same respect. At least from your report.

First, it reads like a travelogue, a parade of Nigerians, a Nigerian catwalk show. Of course we all know our Nigerian attitude to travel, to international conference of AIDS in faraway Toronto , away away from the eye of the storm.

Prof Ransome kuti was on record to claim that of every $100 devoted to AIDS only $12 get to where it should go, the remaining $88 dollars end up in private pockets. So no wonder we perhaps have a lot of Nigerian in that conference.

‘AIDS is where money is after oil’ is a well mouthed slogan in NGO circles in Nigeria today. And I was eager when I saw a report of a conference written by a writer that it will at least present something insightful. Why are so many Nigerians in that conference? When an international conference on AIDS well publicized was organised in MUSON centre sometimes ago few of those dignitaries you see in Toronto attended. The hall was almost empty. And those journalist? When the Niger food crises happened above us how many Nigerian journalist were there to cover it? How many African journalists are there covering Darfur crises or any happening in Ghana or in Cameroon . But Toronto, New York, London, Moscow, Paris, they are there and you invoke ‘progress’ when there is apparent reliance on those that have little or no commitment to the cause?

Any idiot can come to the podium and say he/she has AIDS. It is common in Molue nowadays. To gain sympathy, I have aids, my wife dash am to me. She is dead now.’ A beg make una helep me o.’ just to gain sympathy and charity. I don’t see any boldness in coming over to the podium. Now imagine at the behind the scenes of the conference the kind of grant/donation such a man’s NGO will be able to tap.

Someone here too said likewise to be on the priority list for a council flat.

Between 60,000 and 100,000 Nigerians are on anti retroviral drugs! We Nigerians can grand stands at international conferences! Eh? It is just to deceive the donors that their monies are doing good. Where did he get that figure? Just like how then then Okonjo Iweala said at an international conference to invite investors into Nollywood said Nigerian movie industry fetch N7billion and a Nigerian journalist challenged her: your Excellency how did you arrive at that figure, who gave it to you. She couldn’t answer.

ARV drugs are not vaccines, you have to use them regularly. Does the Nigerian health official supply the drugs to those 100, 000 regularly. Were they not being treated worse than pensioners . The AIDs columnist the weeken Punch once reported how difficult it was to get the drugs. And a government official was going to the conference doing grandstanding on their behalf. Even the audience. You should have known he was lying when he couldn’t give a figure like: something around 50,000 or a over or below 90,000 but could only supply a figure that has a range of 40,000 lives! Doctor, in the world of statistics more importantly in public health, drug distribution, you give a figure of that range. Meaning that we can’t account for 40,000 drug outlets.

AIDS in our country is a business, a criminal business and we should alert the world. I am afraid You missed that opportunity.

Reply August 24, 2006 - 11:29 am

Hello Ike mai broda,

Hope the Toronto Conference didn't turn out to be another carnival of sorts like ICASA 2005 that we had in Abuja.As at today, only about 82,000 PLWHAs are on ART, though FGN is scaling up CVT/ART services but it's still far from the 250,000 that OBJ "manadated" to be placed on ARVs. Societies that have a functional health care system have been managing the epidemic far better, and try as we may in Naija, the basic problems are beyond the eradication of HIV/AIDS.Our health system and services delivery paradigm have to not just be "reformed" but be functional to start with,and "every other thing would be added unto us". By the way, where have you been Bros Ike…"imele aghi?" ( Felix from Abuja)


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