I have an older sister and a younger brother. My parents live in New York.

I’ve said these words a hundred times since arriving in South Africa. In almost every culture, it seems, friendship begins with questions about family. “Do you have siblings? Where do your parents live?”

Back in Indiana, it is unusual for a friend my age to have lost a sibling or a parent. But here in Kwazulu-Natal, it seems to be the norm.

In our early conversations about our families and our communities, I’ve found almost all of my new friends here in South Africa have lost a member of their immediate family. Statistics tell me a good number of these deaths were likely due to AIDS, and yet I have heard just one person name the responsible disease—and only after a somewhat pointed question on my part.

A Silent Killer

The silence around AIDS is oppressive. There is a strong sense I’ve broached a taboo topic when I begin asking questions about it. Even simple questions like, “Do you learn about HIV in school here?” seem to make people uncomfortable.

I wasn’t here long before I began walking on egg shells around the topic, understanding the way cultural norms can dictate what is appropriate conversation.

A World Changers life skills participant manual equips participants with the facts about HIV and AIDS.

It is not a stretch to say people are now dying here from stigma alone. And while I’m not easily angered, my frustration is growing over the effects of this dangerous  silence around HIV and AIDS.

I’m angry that when my South African friends tell me they have lost a sibling or a parent, this tragic news is not a surprise.

I’m angry that testing, ARVs and methods to prevent mother-to-child transmissions are widely available but shame prevents people from employing them.

I’m angry that well-intentioned campaigns to prevent AIDS largely target “high risk” groups like prostitutes and drug users, when this disease is so clearly affecting everyone.

I’m angry that AIDS has become a silent killer, a giant elephant in the room, a disease no one will name.

The Power of Conversation

But I’m witnessing the power of conversation in this uphill climb against stigma. I believe conversation will begin to drain HIV of its power here. And World Changers is walking into communities all over this province and starting conversations.

Empowered with information, these young people are looking forward with hope and purpose.

I sat in a life skills class on the topic of HIV and AIDS and heard students get into a spirited debate about whether you can contract HIV by kissing an infected person. The World Changers facilitator stepped in to settle this and several other points of contention during the course of the discussion.

World Changers is in the thick of the important work of demystifying HIV. Staff members are equipping men and women with a powerful force for prevention and treatment: knowledge. Getting the facts straight is a good first step toward healing.

One of the reasons that the stigma surrounding AIDS has persisted and intensified here is that myths have been allowed to run rampant through communities because no one has stood up and said, “Here are the facts.”

Although governments and schools inundate people with information about AIDS, conversation is absent in the places that information-sharing has the most impact – at dinner tables and coffee shops and churches.

Everyone’s Problem

I listened to about 35 students in a life skills class discussing HIV and found the language they were using of particular interest.

“If I were HIV positive…” and “I have a friend who was wondering…”

Life skills participants celebrate their graduation and look forward into a brighter future.”

Despite being statistically unlikely, no one claimed the virus and no one claimed knowing anyone with the virus.

I’m learning the stigma around HIV and AIDS won’t really begin to dissipate until people are able and willing to identify with the disease. And this won’t happen until it is accepted that HIV is not the problem of drug users and prostitutes alone.

The numbers clearly tell us that in this province, people of every age and lifestyle continue to contract the virus. This is everyone’s problem now.

I hope the students I sat in class with returned to their homes and their groups of friends and started more conversations.

I hope they told someone, “Did you know you can’t really get HIV from kissing an infected person?”, and I hope they named the disease.

I hope someone on the other end of that conversation boldly claimed, “My sister is HIV positive. Let me tell you about her life.”

I hope one day people who disclose their status or admit to the death of a loved one to AIDS are surrounded with love instead of disgrace.

I hope the oppressive silence around AIDS turns into a loud conversation that eliminates this disease in my lifetime.

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Next Steps
    • Pray for courage and boldness for people affected by HIV/AIDS to engage in conversations about the disease. Pray for knowledge to displace ignorance and for stigma to disperse.
    • Brush up on your HIV/AIDS knowledge so you can challenge myths when you hear them and replace them with the truth.
    • Think about how you would react to someone who disclosed to you that he/she was HIV positive. Search your own heart and think about how you might react with compassion and love.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Jen Gunnels is a 2012 summer intern. She graduated in 2005 from Indiana University, where she studied journalism, political science and IU basketball. She loves sports, country music and the state fair and after feeling a stirring in her heart to leave her cubicle and go write, she is doing just that!

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  1. Laura said... 


    July 2nd, 2012 at 10:35 am  

    Wow- Jen this is so powerful. This is exactly the kind of writing we need to read to understand what is causing this widespread, lingering problem. We’re continually very proud of you!!!!!!!

    • Jen Gunnels said... 


      July 2nd, 2012 at 12:14 pm  

      Thanks for reading sis! This was the first thing to surprise me here as we started asking questions but I’m so grateful to be with an organization that is doing something about it!

  2. mom said... 


    July 2nd, 2012 at 10:36 am  

    Wow Jen, what a powerful article! I love your anger and your hope! What a great message and what a great message!
    We love you and are so proud to be YOUR family!!
    love, mom

    • Jen Gunnels said... 


      July 2nd, 2012 at 12:20 pm  

      Thanks Mom! Hoping that our strong reactions prompt us to action!

  3. Dave Rod said... 


    July 2nd, 2012 at 11:04 am  

    Isn’t it amazing that after all these years of world-wide exposure to the truth about HIV that the stigma still is stronger than the cure? Praying that, through you bearing witness, many in KZN and in the USA will awaken to the truth and begin the honest conversation.

    • Jen Gunnels said... 


      July 2nd, 2012 at 12:24 pm  

      Thanks for reading and for your prayers! We are excited to hear the conversation getting louder in KZN and at home!

  4. Morgan said... 


    July 2nd, 2012 at 3:40 pm  

    You say it well, Jen. An NH neighbor (name withheld to protect the clueless) said in surprise a few years ago, “Oh, does AIDS hurt?” Keep up the good work (fist-bump).

    • Jen Gunnels said... 


      July 3rd, 2012 at 3:31 am  

      Thanks for reading Morg (return fist bump)! I’m a little embarrassed by how clueless I was before preparing for this summer too, but grateful to be learning a lot here in SA! Miss you!

  5. Ashley said... 


    July 2nd, 2012 at 3:48 pm  

    Amazing article, Jen. Thanks for sharing this message and for opening my eyes wider to realities of AIDS and those suffering from the disease. I truly had no idea that the stigma was such a deterrent to a solution. Your passion is an incredible motivator — to me and so many others, I’m sure — and I can’t wait to learn more from your reporting!

    • Jen Gunnels said... 


      July 3rd, 2012 at 3:34 am  

      I was so surprised to learn this too, Ash. If you’re interested in reading more, the book “28” was a great read for us before we got here!

  6. Debi said... 


    July 2nd, 2012 at 3:50 pm  

    Wow, I’ve never thought about the stigma of HIV would still be one of the greatest obstacles in dealing HIV. Prayers for you and the WND team as you continue the dialogue. Miss You, be safe!

    • Jen Gunnels said... 


      July 3rd, 2012 at 3:36 am  

      Miss you all too! Thanks for learning along with us this summer. I can’t wait to see you when I get home!

  7. Kerri said... 


    July 2nd, 2012 at 6:38 pm  

    Jen-great articles!! I’m enjoying following your journey and hoping this trip is everything you thought it would be. Keep up the good work!!

    • Jen Gunnels said... 


      July 3rd, 2012 at 5:26 am  

      So good to hear from you Kerri!! Thanks for following along! We are definitely having an amazing summer.

  8. Jack said... 


    July 2nd, 2012 at 8:16 pm  

    Look at this blog post from Lesotho. http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/hiv-in-the-mountain-kingdom/
    There is hope. While changing mindsets is a daunting task, there are groups like yours that are making progress. Keep up the impressive work you’re doing right now.


    • Jen Gunnels said... 


      July 3rd, 2012 at 5:27 am  

      Very interesting article, thanks Jack! It’s so encouraging to hear about the good work that is being done in the area. We’ve encountered lots of dedicated, selfless people here! Thanks for reading!

  9. Barry Rodriguez said... 


    July 4th, 2012 at 3:41 am  

    Such a powerful article, Jen. It’s so cool to see how World Changers is helping to start these conversations! That really is the only way to overcome the power of stigma… Keep it up!

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