Monday, May 10, 2010

Which one of these things is not like the other?

It's time to play a fun new game! It's called "Guess which one of these passages opened up a recent New York Times article on the AIDS epidemic in Africa?"

Is it #1?:
On the grounds of Uganda's biggest AIDS clinic, Moses Nsubuga, a D.J. known as Supercharger, rehearsed his troupe, the Stigmaless Band, composed entirely of teenagers on AIDS drugs.

One of their songs is “America, Thank You So Much.”

Karen Morgan, an American who runs a laboratory at this clinic, said: “Just today, a patient came up to me in the parking lot and said, ‘Thank you, American.’ I said, ‘For what?’ He said ‘For my medicine. You care if I live or die.’"

This once strong support from the American government and international organizations for AIDS initiatives has been waning in recent years. Beleaguered by the high cost of treating and combating the epidemic, donors have started to focus on child killers like stillbirth, pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, measles and tetanus. Cures for those diseases--which kill significantly more people than the AIDS epidemic--are more cost effective, ranging from $1 to $10.
 Or is it #2?:
On the grounds of Uganda’s biggest AIDS clinic, Dinavance Kamukama sits under a tree and weeps.

Her disease is probably quite advanced: her kidneys are failing and she is so weak she can barely walk. Leaving her young daughter with family, she rode a bus four hours to the hospital where her cousin Allen Bamurekye, born infected, both works and gets the drugs that keep her alive.

But there are no drugs for Ms. Kamukama. As is happening in other clinics in Kampala, all new patients go on a waiting list. A slot opens when a patient dies.

“So many people are being supported by America,” Ms. Kamukama, 28, says mournfully. “Can they not help me as well?”

The answer increasingly is no. Uganda is the first and most obvious example of how the war on global AIDS is falling apart.

If you guessed #2, you're right! Unfortunately.

The first one, written by myself, uses information and phrases, almost verbatim, taken from the article. (Excluding my shameless editorial cut-away phrase "which kill significantly more people than the AIDS epidemic," which is true.) The second, actual opening, follows the guidelines of "How to Write About Poor People" and "How to Write About Africa" as if they weren't a joke. The juxtaposition of these two alternate  articles show how the media portray the continent as dark and troubled, while ignoring or burying any positive aspects of a story.

Now, I'm not trying to say that the AIDS crisis is anything but, or that problems aren't getting worse (and I certainly wouldn't want people to think that I support a Bush foreign-policy initiative). I just mostly feel bad for the Ugandan woman, Dinavance Kamukama, who was caught on probably the worst day of her life and exploited to draw readers into a story, only to have her identity dropped a few lines later and her image transformed into a representation of all African women through phrases like "pregnant women and young mothers like Ms. Kamukama" or "[f]amily members like Ms. Kamukama."

The outlook of the AIDS epidemic is surely bleak, but there is no reason to make the picture any worse. Both of these passages deliver the same information--funding is shifting--but the first goes against stereotypes while the second reinforces them. Readers might want the latter, but I'm hoping we'll put up enough of a fight that that kind of language will go the way of Joseph Conrad.

1 comment:

  1. I think I would've guessed correctly if I hadn't already read the article.

    I think there's another difference between your's and the real Times lead that you hint at but don't say. The first is focused on a dollars-and-cents take on giving focusing on measured impact. The second is an emotional pull that's supposed to make us pity the Poor African. In some ways at least, the single narrative or Africa asks us to give out of pity rather than with an informed purpose. In a lot of ways, that's an insult to the great work being done in Africa by foreigners and Africans alike.