20 Years after an HIV Scare in Africa

– Brian Guse, RPCV, and PC Trainer, Mali

I was perusing the National Peace Corps Association site on Facebook today and saw a post urging readers to check out an RPCV’s blog titled “No Going Back – There Is Only Forward.

The author is a young woman who was recently med-separated from Peace Corps after contracting HIV while in country (Zambia). Her story is one of courage and strength and she is an inspiration to all – Peace Corps or not, HIV positive or not.

After reading her blog I couldn’t help but think back to where I was 20 years ago and the intersection HIV made with my own Peace Corps experience. By no means do I compare my “scare” with what she is going through, but I think some of you might be able to relate to the story I am about to tell.

20 years ago, almost to the day, I was sitting on an airplane crossing the Atlantic on my way back to Mali. I had been away from my village, my friends and my Malian family for more than 45 days – on medical evacuation for a serious life threatening illness. After having spent a week in Georgetown University hospital, another 2 weeks recuperating in the Virginian Hotel in Rosslyn, VA (Washington, DC) and a couple of weeks fattening up back home in the Midwest, I was anxious to get back to my mission and finish my remaining months as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

To many of the other PCVs I met on medevac, the time spent in DC was like a vacation – time to recuperate from whatever ailed them, job hunt or visit the sites of the Nation’s Capital. For me, those weeks in DC were some of the most frightening days of my life; a time when I thought I was going to die.

As a sexually active gay man in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I was extremely aware of and paranoid about the prospects of acquiring HIV. Nonetheless, safe sex was a concept but not always a reality for me. Getting tested for HIV was a nerve wracking affair yet throughout college I had been pretty good about getting tested on a regular yet anonymous basis. Then, as now, Peace Corps required a full physical including an HIV test in order to be placed in a country. Before submitting to the full physical, I went to a city health clinic and was tested anonymously one last time. I tested negative. I was ready for the real deal, the official, named and documented HIV test. I tested negative.

I was living in Chicago the day the acceptance letter arrived. Mali, West Africa. Never heard of it. Still, what a happy day. I sat at my favorite Chicago hotdog stand and cried tears of joy and relief as I opened the acceptance letter. The moment the invitation package arrived, the HIV testing stopped. I wanted nothing to get in the way of being a PCV. I knew testing positive would put an end to my dreams of joining Peace Corps so I put it out of my mind and assured myself that I was and would remain negative. If later I discovered I was positive I would be compelled to disclose the information to Peace Corps and end my PCV experience before it ever began. Better not to know. In four non-celibate months I would be on the plane to Mali. Nothing to worry about.

I wasn’t sure of my HIV status the day I flew to New Orleans for pre-service orientation. Stupidly or rather naively, it never occurred to me that Peace Corps would require one final HIV test before allowing me to get on that flight to Mali. The test took place on the first day. I lost sleep in New Orleans. While my fellow trainees were out enjoying their last few nights in the US, I sat in my hotel room shaking with fear. I wasn’t afraid for my health or even my long-term future. Testing positive meant only one thing to me: the end of ever being a Peace Corps volunteer. I tested negative.

After getting settled into my rural village the fears of HIV passed and I focused on other things. In 1990, AIDS hadn’t penetrated land-locked West Africa yet. Peace Corps hadn’t even begun to build an HIV/AIDS sector yet. In my mind the next 2+ years would be a time free from worry. HIV would not get near me.

Several months into my service I received a cassette tape (yes it was the 90’s) from my best friend back home. We went to high school together and came out to each other at a time when coming out was not in vogue. Hearing his voice was wonderful; hearing news about our friends and families brought a smile to my face; hearing him cry as he told me had tested positive for HIV devastated me. HIV had returned to my life; it suddenly became of part of my reality albeit it through someone else; someone for whom I cared deeply but could not comfort in person. I immediately got on my motorcycle and drove to the capital. I placed a phone call to my mom asking her to arrange for my friend to call me from her home the next day. He and I talked for an hour. We laughed and cried and discussed how he became infected. We talked about the future – my future. I felt selfish and petty talking about the community garden I was working on when all he could focus on was whether he’d live long enough to see his 22nd birthday and avoid a slow and painful demise. The early 90’s were an especially frightening time for people with HIV. My generation witnessed the sudden loss of the gay generation before us to AIDS. We had no mentors; we had no role models. To us, AIDS meant death. He was positive. I was negative. He could only focus on the present. I was able to look forward; look to the future. Guilt.

Fast forward one year to three restless nights of fevers and sweats in my mud hut. I had already come down with malaria a few times while in country but this was something different. My Malian host mother had seen enough and insisted that I make my way to the capital to seek medical attention. She sent word by mouth from village to village until a nearby PCV learned I was ill and gave me a lift on his motorcycle to the capital. A few days later I was unable to eat; was losing weight too quickly; had abdominal pains and high fevers. PC sent me to several specialists – no one had an answer. During that time a close friend came to country for a visit. When he saw me at the airport his jaw dropped. I looked bad. In a way that only close friends can speak to one another he said, “You look like you have AIDS.”

Months before, as part of our mid-service physical, Peace Corps required an HIV test. I tested negative. Shortly after the physical I went on vacation to Europe and made up for sexual lost time. For the most part, I was safe. I had nothing to worry about. Until, “You look like you have AIDS.”

The Peace Corps medical unit was unable to diagnose what ailed me. The only choice was medevac. My heart sank. I knew deep down it was HIV. I knew that once it was confirmed Peace Corps would separate me and I would never again see my Malian family. I would never have the chance to say good-bye.

The Peace Corps doctor escorted me on the flight to DC where I was immediately admitted into Georgetown University hospital. I weighed 109 lbs. I had lost 50 lbs in less than a month. The fevers continued. I couldn’t eat. I was delusional at times. I called my mom and told her she needed to come to DC. The doctor spoke with her and said make it quick.

For days, doctors examined me. Phlebotomists drew blood. Nurses held my hand. Students studied me. Most had never seen my symptoms. One intern, I never got her name, boldly suggested a bone marrow exam. She had an idea. She was correct. Typhoid. Curable. Not HIV. No, that test came back negative. Twice. Called mom and said not to worry. “I’ll come visit you once I recover.” Bacon – the first solid food I ate in weeks. I love bacon.

A week in the hospital. Christmas and New Years in the Virginian hotel. Finally, home to mom. More bacon. I spent a good amount of time with my friend. I was embarrassed. I had been worried about myself. I was negative. He was positive. But in those months since sending me the cassette tape much about him had changed. He had come to terms with HIV and was under the care of a number of HIV/AIDS specialists. In the time since we had spoken on the phone he had become positive about life again. He was looking forward; looking to the future. He was not defeated.

20 years later he still is looking to the future. He has lived with HIV for over 20 years. He has suffered losses and buried a lover. He graduated from college. He witnessed his brother’s wedding and watched his nephews grow into fine young men. He bought a house and started a career. He and his partner adopted one too many pugs. Through his strength and perseverance he has inspired all who know him.

I remain engaged in international development. Over the past 20 years I’ve seen African nations fall victim one by one to HIV/AIDS. I’ve seen hope disappear and reappear on the faces of the farmers, students and professionals that I have come into contact with. This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to Mali. Not a day goes by where I don’t think how lucky I was to have a second chance on life – a second chance to complete my Peace Corps service – although really, come to think of it, do we ever really finish Peace Corps?

You can contact Brian Guse at bvguse@aol.com and visit the story on the blog that inspired this article “There is no going back, there is only forward.”

A Lesbian Volunteer in Mali

–A Current PCV, 2008 – 2010

Gay rights in Africa have been in the spotlight lately with the male couple in Malawi who were convicted and then pardoned on June 1, 2010 for taking part in a same sex engagement ceremony, and in Uganda where they are currently debating anti-homosexuality legislation. Almost two years ago when I received my assignment to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa, I started doing some research on African Gay rights. What I found was a little scary. Most countries in Africa, 38 to be exact, have laws against homosexuality and some with the death penalty. Mali as far as I can tell doesn’t have homosexuality on the radar yet. I looked at the legal status of homosexuality in Mali such as legal age of consent, and laws covering homosexual activity. The relevant section of the Malian Penal Code reads “Mali 1981: Article 179 – Sexual Offence, Public Indecency: Three months to two years of prison and a fine of 20 000 to 200 000 francs.” After reading this I breathed a sigh of relief.
Next I Googled Gays in the Peace Corps and got 33,700 results. I found the LGBT Returned Peace Corps Volunteer website (where this article now appears) with a lot of helpful information (http://www.lgbrpcv.org).

When I received my Mali Peace Corps welcome book the contents seemed a mixture of good news and not so good news. The good news was that Gays were on the Peace Corps Mali staff’s radar because they included a paragraph on Gays and Lesbians as part of Peace Corps Mali’s diversity. The not so good news was the dress code which states that women should wear skirts. Well I am a fem and even though I don’t wear dresses very often it sounded OK. Then two friends of mine said they would never go to Mali with the Peace Corps because they would never wear skirts. This started me thinking how much else of myself would I have to give up.

During the two and half months of language, cross cultural and technical training I was out to most of the volunteers but not the Malian staff. This invoked many interesting questions from volunteers like why I had a daughter who is 24 yet I had been out of the closet for over thirty years. There were a lot of questions about my partner of 15 years and how I could leave her to do Peace Corps. As liberal as the Peace Corps is, they didn’t allow same sex partners to serve as a couple. Matter of fact Peace Corps changed their definition of marriage shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Court granted the right for same sex marriages there. The policy change went from identifying married couples according to the laws of the different states to defining a married couple as a union between a man and a woman.

Earlier this year my partner’s mother became ill and she was told that her mother would not last long so she went back east to be with her. Peace Corps does have a family emergency policy for volunteers so I called the Country Director (CD) to see if those policies included domestic partners. My partner and I have been registered with King County as domestic partners for 15 years. The CD said he needed to call Washington DC and would get back to me by the end of the day. Several days later he called and apologized for net getting back to me sooner but the question had gone all the way to the legal department. He explained that while the Peace Corps staff was granted some domestic partnership benefits similar to those granted overseas State Department staff by Secretary of State Clinton, those benefits had not yet been extended to volunteers.

Peace Corps’ non discriminatory policy reads: “An important part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to promote a better understanding of Americans and our multicultural society in the countries where our Volunteers serve. Therefore, the Peace Corps places a high priority on expanding diversity not only among our Volunteers, but also among our staff members. The Peace Corps actively seeks to hire employees regardless of their race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. Our goal is to ensure that Peace Corps employees, Volunteers, and programs reflect and benefit from the diversity of the American people.”

On Peace Corps’ website this is the support and encouragement given to GLBT people: “Homosexuality is considered socially unacceptable or even illegal in some of the countries where the Peace Corps has programs. Moreover, Volunteers are subject to the laws of their country of service. Those realities can create special challenges for Peace Corps Volunteers, and Peace Corps has taken steps to address those challenges. During their three-month training process, new Volunteers take part in diversity training sessions, and many Peace Corps posts offer peer support networks for Volunteers. Volunteers learn techniques to manage cultural differences and are encouraged to support one another.”

It’s true the acceptance of GLBT people world wide is a cross cultural experience. I have been to gay bars in Germany, Cuba, Mexico and several other countries. When I traveled in Vietnam my partner and I were sure that one of our tour guides was a lesbian and we found several articles on gay men in Vietnam. Mali is different in that it is Muslim, less developed and very isolated from the rest of the world. What has helped me is talking regularly to friends and family back home. The people here in Mali have found their way into my heart. The fact is that men and women in Mali don’t socialize together very much. So my hi-light has been dancing with women at weddings while the men are all sitting off somewhere doing what ever it is they do.

As a Small Enterprise Development volunteer I feel like I have made a difference. My three major projects have been product development with a bogolan (a traditional woven textile) Malian association, literacy classes for artisans and teaching junior achievement in three schools. The bulk of my work has been with women artisans. Over the thirty some years I have been out of the closet I have met many challenges because of my sexual orientation and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Peace Corps has been an amazing experience for me and I don’t regret the decision at all.

You can contact the writer of this article at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Stirring It Up in Mali

-Ben Kudler, HIV/AIDS Volunteer

Last August, I enlisted in Peace Corps-Mali not knowing what to expect. Before leaving the country, I researched the history and mission of Peace Corps, the specifics of my job duties as an HIV/AIDS volunteer, and my rights and responsibilities as a PCV. However, unlike many of my colleagues in-country, I purposefully refrained from reading ten years of archived Malian news articles, nor did I delve into the hundreds of “My Peace Corps Experience” novels out there. I wanted to come to Mali on my own terms, and to form my own impressions of life in Mali.

Fresh from the leftist-liberal quads of Vassar, after eight semesters heavily flavored with women’s studies, I arrived sensitive to gender roles and the presence (or lack thereof) of sexuality in a Muslim country. I was worried about meshing my last five years’ experience as a vocal, out, gay man with two years in a place where my identity politics are irrelevant (at least to host-country nationals). I do not doubt that same-sex encounters happen here, but I knew that any semblance of a gay or lesbian identity would be left behind at the airport gate. Nine months later I’ve yet to break into the secret gay subculture of Mali, and yet I never lack for a bit of good old camp (i.e., an old toothless man at a bus stop wearing an old T-shirt, “100% Bitch”), nor for a healthy dose of same-sex intimacy.

Despite the obvious inequality between men and women in Mali, I am constantly charmed to see two men holding hands, hugging, or cuddling on a woven mat, or to find two women cradled together, braiding hair for hours, laughing and caressing. While gender codes are as fixed as in the States, I find them to be a bit queered: Malian men are physically affectionate with each other, can be seen giggling with babies bouncing on their laps, and dancing in pairs; women form bonds that are (dare I say) stronger than the ones they have with their husbands. Adrienne Rich would be thrilled – the lesbian (and gay) continuum is in full array here, in a culture where heterosexual marriage functions mainly to produce field hands, and love knows very flexible gender boundaries.

In my everyday, I like to indulge in these new and somewhat crossed (from western ideals) gender definitions. I find myself playing with gender just because I can: wearing eyeliner like David Bowie or Boy George, flaunting ridiculously garish hot pink frilly African garb, and painting my host brother’s fingernails fuchsia as Bob Marley wails “Stiiiir it up” on the radio. These moments of cross-cultural exchange provide serendipitous opportunities for Malians to question the ways they think about gender, and moreover how they love and treat each other.

During our pre-staging, I was warned that men were not allowed to wear earrings in Mali. After noticing several Malian men wearing earrings (perhaps to emulate American hip-hop/pop icons) during my homestay, I quickly slipped mine back in. The response is generally neutral, sometimes quite positive, and I’m happy to have my earrings back, as they feel like a part of me.

During my first few weeks at site, and today walking down the streets of Bamako (Mali’s capital city), I sometimes hear people exclaim, “Ehhhh?! Man or woman?” When I’ve taken the time to explain that men in America are able to wear earrings, and that it pleases me to do so, Malians are intrigued. I can then transition into other gender issues: in America, women and men can do the same work, men are not allowed to beat women, and in romantic relationships and marriage, both women and men can choose whom they want to be with. Sometimes, I explain, men and women don’t marry at all! Mentioning the option to choose a lover based entirely on love and choice is the closest I’ve come to broaching gay and lesbian issues (although I always mention same-sex intercourse during my HIV work).

Unfortunately, Malian culture doesn’t seem quite ready to talk bluntly about sexuality. After I present all of these cultural differences, I usually get a little laughter and sometimes a small lecture on Malian customs. I’ve found that engaging your average Malian on the street can provide just the right kind of captive audience to get some balls rolling for reflection and possibly change. I am happy to have found my own way of getting people to question their own beliefs and behavior: this is why I came to Mali, and why I do HIV/AIDS work. Fortunately, while I wait for Prince Charming to ride into town in his air-conditioned Land Cruiser bearing flowers and Knorr sauce packets, I feel comfortable exploring and expressing the affection and camaraderie I feel toward other men, play with kids, and do other “girly” stuff without stigmatization.

Additionally, having the sexual aspect removed from male intimacy has given me a unique opportunity to learn about my own desires, needs, and priorities, unclouded by the physical aspect that generally defines gay and lesbians at home. Having so much time on my hands and living in a male sphere, I’ve already had a wealth of time to reflect on my own relationships with men, to try and decipher what I like and dislike about male intimacy, and to ponder the differences between a romantic and friendly relationship.

Through the challenges of my new (celibate) gender-queer Peace Corps experience, and prolonged exposure to Bob Marley, I’m kept well-entertained and feeling productive – little by little, there is much room for change, and I’m proud to be on the ground level, asking questions and stirring things up a bit.

Ben Kudler can be reached at bekudler@yahoo.com.