If you're like me, fair-skinned and visiting East Africa, "mzungu" will probably be one of the first Swahili words you learn. Originally meaning “someone who moves around wanting to see everything,” as a result of domination by meddlesome European powers it came to mean "white person." Even if one may have been working here among Africans for many years, one is still mzungu in the eyes of most.
For an HIVer on his first visit to Africa, mzungu makes me feel like a magical being when it comes from the mouths of children, some of whom may be seeing and touching their first white man in the flesh. It also reminds me of being conspicuous -- as if having a thick walrus mustache ever makes one unnoticeable -- in a way familiar to many longtime HIVers from the effects of the virus and older ARVs. And with being conspicuous comes the risk of personal harm, though locals on this journey have been most kind and protective of me and my companions.
Still, speaking openly of my HIV experience as I crisscross Kenya with a group of college students from Washington, DC, I find an instant bond with local health advocates and a mournful connection to this place. The stories of stigma and discrimination are painfully familiar, as are the conditions of relative governmental neglect and corruption on many fronts. So are the resilient characters breathing new life into their people, whether it's Mama Mercy and her orphanage or my new friend Juma coordinating home care visits, anti-stigma messaging, and prevention education at Community Transformers in the Mathare slum of Nairobi.
Good people always rise up to meet needs unmet by government, regardless of where they may be. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Médecins sans frontières, UNAIDS, and a variety of relief organizations may be able to deploy financial and tangible resources here to fight HIV, but it is the will and spirit of local individuals and collectives that is ultimately turning the tide against HIV. Mzungus have their ideas of what works in mzungu lands, but we haven't been part of cultures that began dealing with "slim" (the early colloquialism for what we now know as HIV wasting) a century ago.
It's been almost thirty years since I took my first African history course at Rice University and began learning of the brutal nature of European colonial rule, as well as the plague that had been circulating unattended by global concerns, though fueled by sub-Saharan colonial trade. Now, sub-Saharan Africa faces a watershed moment of fighting HIV imperialism, of continuing to be empowered with resources from beyond while being capable of taking decisions that are culturally appropriate, respectful of universal human rights, and accountable to the people being served, not government ministries known for waste, abuse, and inaction.
Africans affected by HIV want mzungu allies, not another generation of outside control.