Kennedy Gondwe, 31, a freelance journalist based in Lusaka, Zambia, reports for the BBC and CNN among other outlets. One of his stories for BBC in 2007 itself drew wide coverage: He reported on his own circumcision as a way to show his audience the importance of the surgery, which provides a significant yet partial level of protection against HIV. His interview is the third installment in a week-long Science Speaks series on the potential impact of circumcision in the fight against AIDS.
What has been the impact of your story three years ago?
What I really liked about the report was the feedback it got from a lot of different groups. I live in a country where men aren’t circumcised in general. Some do it for the transition from being a boy to a man, but even that is considered a sacred thing and can’t be discussed in public. With that report, it broke the stigma and demystified male circumcision. It aroused a lot of debate it, there were people for and against it, but the bottom line was that there was a lot of awareness raised around it. That had an impact.
Did many people approach you personally?
Many of my friends did! Especially my friends. There was also a discussion on national TV and I was invited. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go because I was still recovering from the operation. The biggest newspaper in Zambia ran the story, and that also got feedback. My friends came to me, actually some were laughing at me, because I went public. But secretly, some came to me and asked, ‘Why did you go for it?’ Last week, a close friend from secondary school told me he was going for male circumcision because of what I did. So the impact is still ongoing. After I did mine, a lot of people came out in the open. Musicians and other journalists copied what I did.
But what’s also important is not just to tell people to get circumcised, but that they alson must observe safe sex practices.
Has it been difficult to get that message across?
Yes. The misconception still is filtering through. People think once you are circumcised, you are 100 percent protected from the virus that causes AIDS, and you can run around and sleep with whomever you want to sleep with. The education aspect should be ongoing. People should be repeatedly told on TV and radio that it is not 100 percent safe and they must take precautions such as using condoms. Because the demand is running so high now, you run that risk of people not aware it isn’t 100 percent protective.
What is happening with the demand for circumcision in Zambia?
It is amazing. You go to certain places where there are long queues with people waiting for circumcisions. When I did mine, I was the only one waiting. There are now many more organizations advertising that they provide the service. There are even mobile units providing circumcisions. The demand is really going up. The sky is the limit.
Is the government doing enough?
I am impressed with what the government has done and what the NGOs have done. Government has invested in strategies for the disease. They’ve embraced the work of the nongovernmental organizations. They are working well together.
What has to happen to get higher percentages of men circumcised?
The most important things are the need for more funding and more education. You have created a demand so it would be very dangerous if you cannot meet it. There have been instances where the queues formed are too long, and people leave and operate on themselves. So it’s not enough to just create awareness. Looking ahead, there should be more awareness, education, funding, and more organizations to offer the service.
How did the story on your own circumcision change your life?
It’s been tremendous. I was nominated for an international award and I was able to go to Ghana. I went to Mexico for the Kaiser fellowship and covered the International AIDS Conference in 2008. That opened me up to a new world. People ask me, `What drove you to do it?’ I tell them that I should take a leading role and show others, even as I protect myself against HIV. It has made a new Kennedy, a new person, so I look back and I have no regrets at all. I take joy at what I did. Even if I dropped dead today, I would know because of that brave decision that I took, I influenced others. So, yeah, it has changed my life.