1. How long did it take to learn Swahili?
Peace Corps Tanzania prepares its volunteers through an intense 3-month language and cultural training before allowing them to start their two-years of service.
By the time I completed my training, I was capable of surviving solo in my village. I don’t, however, think that I felt completely comfortable public speaking, chatting with neighbors, or joking around in Swahili until about 9 months into my service.
2. Were you shocked with the stigma that existed in the village towards those with HIV?
In some ways, yes. I expected people to be more supportive of their friends and family who were HIV positive, especially because there are so many people who live with HIV in Tanzania.
Stigma exists in Tanzania for the same reason that it exists in America. People tend to distance themselves from that which they are afraid of, and people tend to be afraid of unknown entities. There are certain stereotypes that accompany a diagnosis of HIV, many of which are based off of fear and ignorance.
Something that never really occurred to me before my experience in Tanzania was the idea of self-stigmatization. I never really considered its prevalence and the harm that it was capable of causing. The healing value of self-acceptance cannot be understated.
3. How did the villagers with HIV react to the project?
The people who are open about their HIV status really took ownership of this production. They wanted the world to know that they are strong, hopeful, and valuable individuals. They wanted to share their lives and stories with others in Tanzania and abroad, hoping that this might reduce stigma and help others who are HIV positive to live life to its fullest.
One day we were invited to the funeral of a woman who died of AIDS. This woman and her family were not open about their status so I was surprised that they were willing to have the crew come and film the funeral. I was expecting the usual service where nothing is said about HIV, nice words are exchanged and then everyone goes home.
Mama Oska and other members of the open HIV positive community had something else in mind. They used our presence to give strength to their movement and validate their words. To my surprise, especially since the family was not even open about the reason of death, Mama Oska stood up to a crowd of over 300 people and said what everyone was thinking but no one else was bold enough to say “May Theresia’s death be a message to us all. If she had been given the respect, love, and council that she needed, she would be here with us today.'”
4. Do you stay in touch with any of the people featured in the movie?
I call Mama Oska from time to time, but as time passes, my Swahili skills become less honed. I last spoke with her about a year ago and everyone was doing well at that time.
5. Do you think you will ever go back to Tanzania?
Yes, I would certainly love to go back and visit at some point.
WAZI World AIDS Day Documentary
November 30, 2013
Good Luck Macbeth Theatre
7pm and 9pm
Followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers