Sex + Love

We Overcome Here

A scene report from 2013’s International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa.

Photo by Sara Chitambo, collage by Kelly.

Photo by Sara Chitambo, collage by Kelly.

Africa is a massive continent, and for everything that I love about it, it’s not without its problems. After centuries of oppression and exploitation, almost half of the population of the continent lives in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. About two-thirds of people in the world living with HIV and AIDS live in Sub-Saharan Africa; and in 2011, it was reported that South Africa, where I live, had the most cases of HIV/AIDS on the continent, with 5.6 million people living with the disease—over 17% of the country’s adult population.

Last month, I attended the 2013 International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA), where I was scheduled to perform some of my spoken-word poetry on behalf of the Zazi campaign, which is all about reminding young South African women that we don’t need sexual relationships with boys to validate us, and that it’s essential to our futures to maintain good sexual-health practices. The theme of this ICASA conference was “Now More Than Ever: Targeting Zero”; it was focused on eradicating the disease in South Africa in the future, and eliminating discrimination against people with HIV today.

I had landed in Cape Town the previous morning with the program manager for Johns Hopkins Health and Education South Africa. (JHHESA was a producer of the Zazi video I wrote about last fall.) The moment I stepped into the convention center, I got totally excited. There were so many people there, advocating for sex workers’ rights, representing museums, caregivers, children’s organizations, and more. Some were serious-looking and carried briefcases, while the younger ones ran around in T-shirts that announced the causes they were there to support.

As I walked around and waited to meet up with the rest of JHHESA team, my attention was snagged by a cluster of booths marked with signs that said CONDOMIZE! in big letters. Some of them had further decorated their stalls with condoms filled with water, water-balloon style, plus bottles of lube, vibrators, and other sex toys. One of the booths was giving out free condoms to anyone who wanted one.

Although condoms are readily available in shops and public health facilities across the country, their use is still not widespread. Only the well-off people in South Africa have access to good healthcare and education, and most of the black population here is not well off. Add to these facts all kinds of prejudices and stigmas—the idea that “real men” don’t use condoms, the the assumption that a woman who buys condoms is a “slut” or that anyone who uses a condom must have AIDS, etc.—and the very real fear of sexual violence against women who don’t comply with a male partner’s wishes. So it was heartening to see the people of CONDOMIZE! smilingly presenting condoms as tools for pleasure.

Some of the wares on offer from CONDOMIZE!

Some of the wares on offer from CONDOMIZE!

In the days leading up to the conference, I hadn’t imagined it would be so much fun. I thought the whole thing would be super serious, dominated by serious talks from medical professionals, activists, and journalists. But outside the conference rooms, the spirit was lighthearted. Inside those rooms, things were more sedate, but not boring at all. I heard talks about HIV/AIDS activism in countries where homosexuality is illegal, about disability rights, about how best to promote the use of female condoms. It was inspiring to see that, despite the often depressing statistics concerning sexual health in Africa, so many people are truly dedicated to changing those numbers.

I was scheduled to perform at the big launch event on the first night of the conference. I visited the conference center’s auditorium that afternoon to rehearse; but the second I walked in, I felt my knees give way, and then my left shoulder hit the door. As painful as that fall was, it was nothing compared with what was happening in my heart, which felt like it would beat right out of my chest. Yes, I had an actual panic attack.

I got back on my feet, got up onstage, and tried to practice my poem, but when I stared out at the seemingly endless rows of empty seats, I started to imagine what it would look like when they were all filled. My heart beat faster. I had never performed anywhere even near this size. Reader, I was freaking out.

I barely remember anything that happened at the big event before I went onstage—I was way too nervous to notice munch. I do remember that we had a moment of silence for out of respect for the recent passing of President Nelson Mandela. I think there was a short performance from a dance group. Then the host announced my name and I made my way to the stage and then there I was. Here’s a bit of the poem I recited:

Even when the sky seems to be falling,
Those of us who are strongest have to hold it up
When there is no way to tell the difference between rain and tears
Those not choking back screams will have to speak up
I hear Audre Lorde say, “Silence has never brought us anything of worth”
We have come too far
We overcome here
We love here
We survive here
We heal here
We hold hands and march towards the sun here

Now more than ever
We have to keep up the good fight
Keep an army in our throats
An extra battalion in our breaths
For every 10 that fall, a thousand must rise
And pick up from where they left
For every 17 seconds, every headline and statistic
We remain persistent and present
To honor those who gave their lives as lessons
We remember them by name

This performance represented a new challenge for me: I was expected to deliver something relevant to the occasion, but also “nice.” A “crowd pleaser.” I had some political poems and some pieces about social issues in my repertoire, but they were all very angry and FUCK THE GOVERNMENT, which is my usual steez. Since this poem would be performed for a larger audience than I’m used to, at a progressive event, I had to be pleasant, inoffensive, uplifing, and gentle.


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  • brontosaurus January 15th, 2014 12:26 AM

    This is such an amazing article, really inspiring and sad at the same time. I’m also glad to be learning about stuff like this. It’s so strange that I go to school every day and learn over and over again about the history of my own country, but hardly ever learn about the present happenings of other countries.

    Also, I completely agree about making feminism accessible, and I just want to say that Rookie has been the number one source of all of my access to feminism. Before Rookie feminism was something I agreed with, but didn’t necessarily understand as we’ll as I do now. So, erm, thanks Rookie.

  • Graciexx January 15th, 2014 3:10 AM

    Your poem was wonderful Nova! I love the last part of the last paragraph, where it talks about how hard it is to measure your impact as an activist. I used to think ‘whats the point’ about speaking up for causes I believe in but now I realise how important educating people around can be – even if its just your two best friends.

  • RisainSanFrancisca January 15th, 2014 11:51 AM

    This is so inspiring! It’s such an important cause to be working on, and just reading about the event gives hope for an aids-free Africa in the future. I loved your poetry Nova!!

  • Suzy X. January 15th, 2014 12:01 PM

    You rock, Nova!

  • amelia3 January 15th, 2014 2:53 PM

    This was captivating. It can be really discouraging sometimes as an anti-sexual violence activist for a lot of the reasons addressed above, so it’s really wonderful to read articles like this to lift our spirits and renew our efforts. I am so grateful for people like you, Nova.

    P.S. Rookie was the reason I got interested in feminism, too :)

  • Ella W January 15th, 2014 5:57 PM

    This is really inspirational. I must admit I don’t know too much about HIV and AIDS (apart from what we learn in Biology class!) but those statistics are really shocking! It’s great that there are people getting out there, drawing attention to and educating people about HIV.
    Plus I really love your poetry Nova!
    Ella x

  • Tyknos93 January 15th, 2014 7:24 PM

    This is AMAZING Nova! It makes me feel like I don’t know nearly enough. I love that this program was very grassroots and “by us for us” yah know? I’m really hesitant about advocacy groups and for profit organizations, because I hear that alot of the people who are meant to be helped are not sufficiently served. This was really eye opening thank you!

  • tasmia January 16th, 2014 2:05 AM

    Thank you for this-it has strengthened my resolve to continue to fight for the causes I believe in. (Sounds cheesy, but true.)

  • cabinfeverray January 16th, 2014 10:34 AM

    This was such a good article! I want more information on how to support this and above all how to spread information!

  • girlswithcats February 4th, 2014 12:26 AM

    As a young person about to get into the world and face the real problems of being a responsible adult, I still manage to see the bright side on the future that my generation will build, even if much of it is reluctant to make any change or feel too much neglected because when you are young you are more willing to feel like whatever you want to do to change the world is imposible or not important. I hold to the idea that we always can change the world for the better, because there are always people that will do everything for reaching this dream, I’m optimistic about that, I still have faith in people.