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.