Remarks for CIDRZ Staff & Guests
Lusaka, Zambia – 31 January 2014
It’s so good to see all of you again, and to be with you at a place which is so important to me. I realize that for most of you, coming to CIDRZ means coming to work or engaging in a brief visit. But for me, there is a sense of “coming home” when I’m allowed to be with you. Lusaka was not the first African city where I worked, but I quickly adopted it as my city away from home where I was most at home, most felt as though I belonged, most wanted always to come and never to leave. And it’s worth my saying that as an HIV-positive woman, when I first visited nearly a decade-and-a-half ago, I was a different woman than I am today.
The first time I visited we were just becoming convinced that the anti-retroviral drug therapies were not only going to work – as AZT and other prescriptions had worked – but that it was going to work on a sustained, continual basis. Longitudinal studies and real-life experience were coming together by the late 1990s to say, “Hey, this works! We’re going to be keeping people alive.”
We were still a long way from the sophisticated drugs and combinations which we have today. And we were far, far from moving toward universal access which remains a critical goal today. But for the first time since I and so many others had been diagnosed with the virus that leads certainly to AIDS, there was hope in the air. And hope was new.
And being a woman with AIDS in the United States in 1991, when I was diagnosed, made me a novelty of sorts. Of course there were other women with the virus, but their numbers were low and public awareness was even lower. Being a novelty is not all bad but neither is it all good. And as the years wore on, the novelty wore off. I longed to find others like myself: mothers who wondered how to manage both illness and children, women who had experience with being told we would die, but still needed to live. I did not want to be the exception any longer.
And then I came to Lusaka. What I found here was a community of women very much like myself. We recognized that we are different in race and nationality, language and habits. But those differences paled by comparison to the similarities. We were, and we have remained, literally “blood-relatives.” What binds us is a virus that wants to kill us and a joyful unity that keeps us alive. For the first time in my life with AIDS, here in this city I found myself in the context of others who knew my experience and shared it. And this companionship, this sisterhood, this acceptance which enables us to laugh and sing and dance together – it was new.
And at the core of my life in Lusaka has always been CIDRZ. This is the place of healing that enables me to go home and return, and find my sisters healthy and happy and well. Because CIDRZ welcomed the Abataka Women as they engaged in learning and employment, it has become even more a place in which I feel at home.
And for all this, I thank you. I thank you for taking on the challenges of work within CIDRZ. It is not easy, and sometimes it is not very rewarding. We who are sick can be difficult to serve; we are not always kind, or thankful, or courteous. The hours get long and the pay seems low. The challenges seem never to go away, whether they are scientific barriers, financial limitations or bureaucratic obstacles. It isn’t easy. And yet you come each day, you pour out your energy and your creativity on behalf of all who are sick and dying. And I rise today to offer a sincere “thank you.”
Last Spring I was honored to be with some of you when we dedicated the Max M and Marjorie S Community and Training Centre. We were joined by Charles Holmes, Jessica Grillo and Idah Mukuka and so many others who have made CIDRZ what it is today. And when I was allowed to make a few remarks on that occasion, I recalled that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King struggled for his whole life to build what he always called “the beloved community…in which poverty would have no place, racism would have no quarter and violence would have no purpose.”
I said on that occasion that “if I understand King’s dream correctly, what he was calling us to, is nothing more nor less than risking ourselves for one another. The beloved community…will be ushered in when we clearly see our differences and pursue the risk of devotion to one another nonetheless — when I see the pain of your burdens, and risk my comfort to take up your agonies. Dark days have shadowed our history; dark days will come again. And when they come, if we are truly dedicated to the work of community-building, we will be ready.” And here we are again. Once more you have opened your doors and hearts to me; once more you have welcomed me home.
In a world where institutions rise and fall in a span of months, CIDRZ has been committed to the work of learning and healing for years, and now approaching decades. It has taken on work that others see as a project and turned that work into a community commitment that endures. CIDRZ has become, during the years I have known you, a permanent organization committed to sustainable service to the people of Zambia.
We can recall hard times and dark days but, when we do, we need also to see that we have found our way from the darkness to the light. If leadership faltered or funding seemed uncertain, we have emerged from our own fears to see the dawn of a new and better day.
Every day that you work and every night that you labor long, you demonstrate to the people of Zambia that your commitment is not brief or limited; it is not temporary. You are here, and you are here to stay. Permanence is your hallmark.
And as the world of higher education and medical research looks for models, they turn with regularity to you, to see what it is that CIDRZ has done and how you’ve done it. What makes this possible is not only what you have achieved in the past but, more importantly, what you continue to do now. Permanence has brought you this far, but permanence will carry you much further.
And what you mean, as an institution and as individuals, to me is beyond my own description.
I am an American who sometimes despairs of American self-interest; when I am here, and I see what you are accomplishing as an international community drawn from many nations, I take hope for all nations and all humanity.
And I am a woman with AIDS. I am working this week with other women who share with me not only that virus but all that comes with it. And for each of us, CIDRZ stands as proof that aid and comfort is not temporary; it is enduring. When we grow weak, you will be here. If our families need comfort, you will be here. Where others may take their leave, you will take the opportunity to stay, to labor, to heal and to love.
Permanence is more than the accumulation of years and experience. It is the promise that CIDRZ is not only excellent; it is also trustworthy. It will be here long after I leave, and it – you – will be here should I return again. To all of you, and for all of you, I give thanks. Thank you…thank you…thank you!!!