One of my classes -- for those who haven't been keeping up -- is Biology of AIDS. It has been fascinating and difficult, and I'm so glad I took it. We started in September with chemistry, the nature of chemical bonds, moving on to genetics into cell biology, the immune system, microorganisms and viruses, epidemiology, and on into public health and drug therapy and research, and prevention efforts.
On Friday, we had a guest lecturer from the University health service (whatever it's called) who spent last summer in Tanzania, volunteering with a group doing HIV prevention and treatment education in a small village. She gave a presentation about the experience. She showed lots of slides of the Tanzanians she lived and worked with, along the lines of National Geographic photos, beautiful traditional African dress, ebony skin, big smiles, and lots of dust. At the end, she showed a few short video clips of the villagers singing and dancing.
She said that they sang and danced on and off all day long, at the drop of a hat. Any time there was a lull in activity, they spontaneously began singing. The video clips unexpectedly moved me. It's easy, and I guess dangerous in a way, to romanticize that sort of thing, to trivialize, to condescend -- "Look at the charming natives" -- but the images filled me with the same longing I feel sometimes for a kind of generalized Appalachian past when people got out banjos or a jaw harp and sang songs on the front porch at night. Maybe it's eighty percent nostalgia, but I think there's some amount of blood memory in that longing, a yearning that gets more intense as our modern world spins us farther and farther from each other, community, family, god.
(And of course I feel profoundly conflicted about any longing I might feel for a "natural" community, because those traditional structures have not, at least not those in my particular European lineage, been kind to sexual deviants, which is probably why as a teenager I began to run screaming from anything that looked like traditional community or family.)
After her presentation, she handed out little embroidered red ribbon stickers and "safe sex kits" -- small ziplock bags with condoms and lube and information about STDs. Maybe I was emotionally primed by the video of the African villagers, but those safe sex kits really got me. They reminded me of the mid-80s, when it was so exhilarating to finally know what was causing AIDS and how it could be prevented, and we all had a feeling of solidarity and purpose, because, now that they knew what caused it, it was only a matter of time before there would be a vaccine or a cure, and until then we would keep having great sex because we had this new exotic sexy device called a condom -- "safe sex is hot sex!" Condoms were everywhere it seemed, handfuls of them, big bowls full, like candy everywhere you looked. And the burst of activism was powerful and exciting -- all those demonstrations and marches and the boys in their cutoff jeans and ACT UP t-shirts, shouting.
I remember when we all rode in buses to somewhere in Maryland or Virginia, to demonstrate outside the FDA headquarters building in 1988. (I only know the year because I looked it up. My recollection is a little foggy.) One of our slogans at that time was something to the effect that more Americans had died of AIDS than died in Vietnam, which was some 40,000, I think, and at the time we were terribly indignant and saddened by such an impossibly high number. Blows my mind.
Twenty-five years later -- and I've just taken this course and learned that the nature of this virus is such that it's difficult to imagine there ever being anything as neat and clean as a vaccine or cure -- they're still handing out "safe sex kits," trying to get college students to use condoms, and I'm 46 and still trying to keep it together, still trying not to get infected.