Rarely, did I see hope in Africa. We’ve been working there since the 1980s trying to help some of the millions of children orphaned by AIDS. I saw plenty, including villages nearly emptied by this disease, children living alone in homes little more than huts, fending for themselves because both parents died, and, in some cases, farming communities gone to weed because there are not enough healthy people to tend to the crops. But I hardly ever saw real hope. That is, until recently.
The United States has given Africans hope. The global AIDS initiative advanced by the President and enacted by Congress has had a stunning impact on both the worldview of the many Africans we have encountered on our recent trips to Africa, and the relationship between Africa and the United States. The first time I heard an African Muslim leader praise President Bush for his President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) I was surprised. Now my only surprise is when I don’t hear such praise for the United States.
The United States and Africa share, of course, a long and complex relationship. For years Africa has had its attention focused on Europe much more than the U.S. And to many Africans, it appeared that the United States didn’t care much that more than 29 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV/AIDS. Yes, there were private health and faith-based organizations from this country working in Africa, but Africans heard little from the American political leadership. This changed when President Bush announced the Global AIDS initiative and Congress followed suit by quickly passing legislation that will dedicate as much as $15 billion over the next five years to 12 countries in Africa and two in the Caribbean for the prevention and treatment of AIDS.
What we have found since in Africa is deep and sincere gratitude, and a completely different view of the political leadership and the people of the United States. This holds true for the health ministers we have met with in Africa as well as the people we have met in clinics and churches. There is a belief that America cares. The import of that can’t be understated.
Africa is a continent decimated by AIDS. It is a continent with a large Muslim population. It is a continent facing civil and economic unrest. It is a continent whose people have, understandably, looked at the United States with a certain degree of distrust. But today Africans see Americans in a completely new light, and differently than they see most European countries.
Our country’s generosity is already having an impact on the ground in Africa. Americans would be amazed to see how quickly their dollars are making a difference. We have been involved in helping develop village AIDS committees in Malawi and starting treatment centers in Uganda, among other projects. Until you’ve seen it up close, it’s hard to comprehend how quickly it is possible to make a vast difference in African nations if the resources are correctly targeted. With PEPFAR’s help, we have recently opened our third clinic in Uganda. In three months we have diagnosed over 600 HIV-positive patients and have close to 400 in treatment.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, the United States and Africa are forging a new partnership built around combating AIDS. It started at the top here and is filtering to the ground in Africa. In the world we live in today, this partnership is something we should all be thankful for.
Anita Smith is President of the Children’s AIDS Fund, an organization working to limit suffering of children and their families caused by HIV disease by providing care, services, resources, referrals, and education. For more information or to contact her visit www.childrensaidsfund.org.