Rights activist’s trial raises issues behind Zambia’s HIV fight

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PaulKasonkomonaThe trial of Zambian HIV and human rights activist Paul Kasonkomona on charges stemming from his appearance on television talk show resumed Tuesday as scheduled, but was stalled by a slight glitch, according to a news report, “after attempts to play a recording of the television programme in court as part of the evidence failed.”

Zambia, where power outages, outdated technology and a generally shaky infrastructure pose continued challenges to its response to an HIV epidemic that has devastated its population for the last three decades, as well as to its case against Kasonkomona, has bigger problems to grapple with than an outspoken activist, one might conclude. Other problems came to light the last time the court convened in the case, which began when Kasonkomona was arrested outside a television station after arguing on the air that abstinence campaigns had been ineffective, and “that every intervention to prevent HIV should be embraced, including decriminalizing same sex sexual practices . . .” according to a report from Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. That day’s testimony revealed that among those alarmed by Kasonkomona’s talk was Bishop Joshua Banda, who heads the country’s National AIDS Council, whose idea of “uniting against AIDS” has included “a strong stance against homosexuality.”

Somehow, it seems reasonable to ask that the chairman of the National AIDS Council, which aside from setting priorities for the country’s AIDS response, hosts Zambia’s Global Fund Country Coordinating Mechanism — the team that makes decisions on how Global Fund grants are requested and disbursed — be on the same page as the Global Fund on issues of “Key Populations” and human rights.

Others in the country and in the region are. Last week the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa released a statement condemning the prosecution of Kasonkomona, and saying they were particularly concerned that his speech had been stifled when he was “defending the rights of marginalized populations, who are not being reached by HIV services due to the criminalized nature of their sexual orientation and or gender identity.”

And this week, an analysis by Zambian writer Juliet Mphande mused on the irony that while Zambia celebrated its 49th anniversary  of independence from British Colonial rule, it still clung to damaging laws inherited from “its colonial masters” including criminalization of same sex relationships.”

That, in turn, reminded me of Winstone Zulu, Zambia’s first AIDS activist, and a man Kasonkomona has cited as a model and inspiration. Born the same year that his country won its fight against British colonialism, he had grown up believing that a fight to control one’s own destiny could never be lost as long as it didn’t end in surrender.

ZuluHeadshotBut when I met him in 2011, 20 years after he learned that he had HIV, and after about six years of relentless illnesses, he had been seeking medical help in New York when he concluded that his options had run out.

“They say it is better to come back in a plane seat than as cargo,” he said with a wry smile.

Then, a few weeks later he was feeling much better  and was able to go to a staff meeting of a new PEPFAR prevention initiative, at which he had been invited to speak.

Yes Zambia’s epidemic was considered generalized, he told the staffers of the program, but it was hitting specific populations hard, and they weren’t being reached. “We know what’s going on here,” he said, and asked the staff what they planned to do to reach men who have sex with men, people involved in sex work, and, of personal significance to Zulu, who had relied on crutches since a childhood bout of polio, disabled people.

Afterward he kept a promise and took me to lunch at a restaurant in his neighborhood that served good Zambian food. He had brought two rainbow flags home with him from New York, he told me, one, he said, “the biggest one you’ve ever seen!”

Now that he was feeling better, he planned to use them as backdrops at rallies and speaking events. His flags didn’t just stand for gay rights, he said, they stood for inclusion.

I asked him why donors with more leverage, and with an investment in the fight, didn’t seem as interested in tackling the obstacles of exclusion, as he was.

“I think people are playing games”, he said, and added, “I don’t have time to play games.”

He was right. His recovery didn’t last. He died a couple of months later, on Oct. 12, 2011.  He was, like his country that year, 47 years old.

 

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