ALL MY FAMILY ARE DYING
By Jobs Selasie
Nov. 28 2007
In Christmas of 2000, I telephoned my brother Danny in Africa to wish him a happy holiday and much joy for the coming year and new century. After reciprocating my holiday cheer, he was surprised to learn that his letter, which was sent the previous week, had still not reached me. I hoped it would arrive soon and proceeded to discuss with him my efforts to bring him to England. We had both left home upon the outbreak of war - to Europe, he to Kenya - and it was always decided that he would follow me after a visa and other documentation for travel became available to him through my efforts. After a further exchange of friendly words, my friend continued to express his concerns about his letter, and broke off admonishing me, “Just call when you get my letter… then we will talk!” Well, his obsession really had me going and was a clear indication that some surprise was waiting to reveal itself - maybe a new job, as he was unemployed, or some other piece of good news. I was indeed full of hope and optimism, it being the holiday season after all, but that was soon to change. I received his letter 24 hours later, and it read as follows:
How are you? I hope you are doing okay and are adjusted to the European life. But I am praying everyday that God gives me strength to survive this difficult time! What I am about to say, brother, is very difficult; it is hard to tell someone you love - to tell you that I was diagnosed with AIDS about three weeks ago. I had suspected this for a long time, but I refused to get tested until I became very weak because I was very scared. And when I phoned home to tell my wife about it, she informed me that she, too, had been diagnosed with HIV, as well as our eight-month old girl, who contracted the virus during my wife’s pregnancy. She had hidden this from me to keep me from worrying.
Because I had waited so long for testing, they advised me that I must begin ARV treatments immediately. My wife and my child also need immediate ARV before we die altogether within few weeks. But the problem is that the drug is extremely expensive, and even if you have the money, it is still a rare commodity in the drugstores; you can’t find it anywhere. I don’t want to be a further burden on you, in addition to the money you send me every month, but if you can somehow get the medication to my little girl, at least she can stick around long enough to know her father and uncle. Don’t worry about me. You’re prayers and love are enough.
I could not believe what I was reading. My body became chilled. I began sobbing. The tears were rolling down my cheeks as the world was celebrating a new millennium. Even in 1999 alone, uncles Debebe, Abay and Zehai, Aunties Huruit and Kuku, my cousins Shiferaw, Taye, Teclue, Gideon and Haile. My childhood friends Abel and Ermias have died from AIDS. I am very aware that nine other members of my family have been on AIDS death row already, but my brother? AIDS news was different to me, “a final blow”. I tried calling Danny, but was unsuccessful in reaching him after hours of redialling. So after a sleepless night, and not without more tears, I went to work. This workday was impossible to avoid as I was supporting my sister, her five children and unemployed husband. Not to mention Danny and myself. I really could not afford to miss a single day. I performed janitorial services at a local hospital. Though I am well educated, an asylum seeker with a temporary work permit is given few options. It was only with great difficulty, then, that I made it through the day, painfully attempting a smile here and there and a few words with my co-workers as on previous days. When I made it home, I decided to try reaching Nairobi Kenya again, and this time I was successful. Danny made every effort to assure me that he was fine; but that his sole concern was his wife and child for whose welfare he was really at a loss to provide. I promised that I would do my best.
After that brief and troubling call, I forced myself to make another. I called Danny’s wife in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. I had been the best man in their wedding in 1998, and when she heard it was me she wept unremittingly for three or four minutes before permitting me to comfort her. To my horror, she managed to utter the woeful news that her daughter was buried that afternoon, having died the night before, after two weeks in the confines of a hospital ward from which she was finally released to die at home. There was nothing more they could do. And so, after several more awkward attempts to comfort this poor woman, she remitted to me the unenviable job of informing her husband, Danny, of his little girl’s untimely death, as this had not yet been disclosed to him.
Fortunately, no minutes remained on my phone card, so that evening I was mercifully spared the dreadful task that lay before me. So I just lay in bed, and began to surmise on the inequities of this life and the unfair dispensation of our earthly tenure. We are born in war and we grow up in war. We are born in poverty, and grow up in poverty. Must we endure pestilence too? But always used to having love, hope and family.
I was soon to learn that it was not only my brother Danny who has AIDS and-my-sister in law has only HIV, but my younger sister who lives in Ethiopia is also HIV positive. For the present, however, my three unfortunate loved ones provided enough misery, and more to spare. And so, another sleepless night lay before me. My mind was in turmoil and afforded me little rest. AIDS would eventually rob me blind – my family, loved ones, friends or all together my community. Remembering the old hopes and dreams, I thought of a future now impossible: Danny’s arrival in Europe, the retrieval of his little family, and the building of a new life apart from poverty – decades of war. I thought of life and peace, and my desire to take them both for granted, like so many others do! But AIDS? Even wars and famine come to a conclusion; second chances, starting over, etc. I miss them more than any time. I want to have wings to fly over there and be there with them. But how can I if I have neither enough money nor passport; still I am asylum seeker myself. I become very depressed and sad, even some times feeling suicidal. I felt these are the only options I have in front of me. But I say no to death. I have to be there for those I love the most; to those the most disadvantaged in this unfair world, my people who I belong.
But when will this end? I knew my life was changing, although not like I planned, but how to challenge, how to fight back to keep the hope, love, family, and community together to survive to win over death?
I want to get out from this shocking moment and depression. Save my family from death before they die. My sister-in-law is just one month away from death. She lost all her muscles and is starting to lose her conciseness a little bit now. Danny too is loosing weight almost daily. Supplying medication is very urgent. Supplying them medication with my income is unthinkable. The medication alone costs £30,000 a year for three of them without hospital and other living costs. This is three times my own income. But I am determined; the people I love most in my life I cannot see them dying from this treatable disease because I am poor. I couldn’t help them to survive this death by my own income only, but I can ask people for help. I am lucky I am living in a very rich and humanitarian country that is giving me the chance to live in peace and work to send money back home like other millions of African immigrants who live and work in peace in the UK. My first priority is how to keep my brother and sisters alive. My brother and sister-in-law are in immediate need of treatment as they are in full-blown AIDS. My sister still has some time to develop to full-blown AIDS. Not to mention other relatives and friends who are dying from AIDS. I start to search organizations that can help me get medication. I’m sending letters to charities like Oxfam, Christian Aid, CARE, etc. Some of them they say they couldn’t help with medication; some of them didn’t reply at all. I start to make phone calls, emails and visit AIDS clinics coming face-to-face with doctors and AIDS victims asking them for help and telling them how I am desperate to save my family from this very treatable disease. But time was running out, especially for my sister-in-law. Her health is getting worse and soon she will follow her angel to heaven. She died from this treatable disease like her daughter because she couldn’t afford medication. I am too poor to help her to get this life-saving medication. That was the lowest point in my life. I felt helpless, a loser and sad. She was generous, down to earth, and very gorgeous and was only 25 years old.
After one month of searching for help, I got very good news for the first time in months from one English man named Mr. John who lived with HIV for 15 years. He happily gave me a six-month supply of my brother’s medication and £300 cash for hospital and other expenses. Thanks to this gentle man’s kindness my brother started to recover, and with very short time he got back all his muscles that he lost in the height of his disease. Within two months he started working again. This generous man has given life to my brother. Bless him. That was the highest point of my life. Tomorrow will be better than today. I constantly say to myself “keep the hope”
I want to remember them every second of my life. I want show my solidarity, my love, my commitment to them. To reflect them in my everyday life. To protest everyday. I decided not to eat any animal product or flesh and salt, just to eat vegetables with no salt. Not to smoke cigarettes. NOT to drink anything except tap water——no alcohol, no tea, no coffee, no juice or soft drinks. And to run 25 miles a week until they get the treatment to save their lives. That’s my promise. I realised ans well that I have to be emotional, spiritual, extremely strong and physically healthy just to survive this difficult time. And I have to save every penny because I know it makes a lot of difference back home.
Even though I grew up in a very traditional Orthodox Christian family, I’ve never been to church or prayed to god since my teen rebellion, but now I’ve started to pray three times a day: in the morning when I wake up, at noon before lunch and in the evening before dinner. My prayer brings back my spirituality. I’ve started to get spiritually and emotionally strong. I quit my 40-a-day smoking habit, I used to drink alcohol a couple of times a week and love beer and whiskey, but now I’ve stopped altogether drinking alcohol. Us Orthodox Christian’s never eat pork, but I couldn’t eat any food without meat in it. But now I’ve stopped eating any animal product and have become a vegan. I’ve stopped drinking caffeine of any kind, and am drinking only water. I started the long-life of ascetics. The last time I did exercise was when I was in secondary school playing football 15 years ago. My laziness was changed through daily exercise and running almost every day being an athlete. I gained my spirituality, focus, discipline, health and fitness, and started making a difference in my life and the journey to keep my family alive and save them from death.
To keep the only thing I have in life, which is to keep my family alive forever, to broaden my support to all my relatives, community and my fellow Africans to fight AIDS in an organized way in a clear vision I founded a charity called African AIDS Action in 2001. After I registered it with charity commission, I got my first generous donation from Elton John’s foundation to promote my campaign. I set up a website www.africanaidsaction.org and started raising funds online; donations started to come. I was touched by the generosity of the British public. They are very kind human beings – the most generous people I’ve seen in my life.
The people I was supplying medication has gone up from one to four. My brother, sister and two other relatives. Even though I was very successful in keeping my family alive, I wasn’t satisfied with my achievement. Because other than my relatives and friends, members of my community and another 7500 Africans are dying from AIDS; 1500 newborn babies are infected every day because the can’t have access to medication. I want to do the something about this. First, why is this drug very expensive?
I hired a visiting Chinese scientist from Cambridge University. He concluded his research study in six months. He studies show I can make this life saving drug affordable, accessible and available to anyone who needs it. What is the role of these big pharmaceutical companies on making this drug out of reach of Africans? Why is the pharmaceutical industry non existent or failed in Africa? How have Brazil and Thailand succeeded in making this life-saving drug universally accessible for all and for free. Despite all the global publicity and attention, why has the international community failed to curb this AIDS killing field in Africa?
The answer in the research report is by establishing one continental wide not-for-profit manufacturing facility capable of producing and disturbing in big volume, it is very possible to make this life saving drug affordable, available and accessible to anyone who needs them to save his or her life in short time. From those 25 million HIV positive Africans, there are about 7.5 million of the middle class who can afford the drugs if the price would go down without waiting for hand outs. Those very poor can have access easily by the support of their relatives like myself. The money I was spending for my brother on only his medication could cover six more relatives who died because I couldn’t help them. I believe a sustainable solution is possible.
I was encouraged by the Brazilian Project, however, which managed to reduce the mortality rate of AIDS victims by 85 percent, and this happened largely through the efforts of a few dedicated activists, and single handily by Brazilian government despite American president Bill Clinton’s big pressure to stop it to keep his country’s pharmaceutical industry interest. Now this life saving drug is universally accessible in Brazil. No one dies because of no accessibility to medication. The same success history is now seen in Thailand, the second only third-world country to have universal access to AIDS drugs. Learning from the Brazil and Thailand experience, it is not that difficult to make these drugs universally accessible in Africa. What is needed is will, a good plan and money. There are now surplus scientists and engineers in our world. Technology is not a problem. It is everywhere: Asia, Europe, America and Brazil. Patent issue is easy to solve with those patent holders. They have less than two percent market share in Africa. Even corruption and crime are main problems in Africa. There are few parts of Africa that have the lowest corruption rate in the world and almost with no existence of crime. It is good to implement this project into those areas. It is also about transferring technology and creating employment in Africa.
To implement this project I need $550 million, which is about two percent of the USA and UK AIDS budget for Africa that they allocated in 2005. To get funding and political support I sent the research report or business plan with a covering letter to Mr. Hilary Benn, secretary of international development. I waited over six months for a response to my proposal. It was later ignored by Tony Blair, department of International development. I then began lobbying my local member of parliament. A letter was soon dispatched from his office to Hillary Bern. One month later, a response arrived at the desk of my local MP, claiming that much progress was already being achieved by the United Nations. It continued to describe how, by the end of 2005, three million Africans will have access to treatment. The letter actually stated that there is nothing to worry about regarding AIDS in Africa. Tony Blaire’s Africa commission will come with a solution that solves the problem, like what to do with their PR practice. He’s telling me to keep quiet. Needless to say, I was convinced that I was being ignored, and that I was required to knock much louder to be heard.
I broadened my campaign by sending letters to opposition party leaders Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy; to parliamentarian groups on AIDS activism; to the entire cabinet of the labour government; and to some influential members of the upper house. Conservative party leaders Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy responded quickly, and promised to address the DIFD and continue supporting my work in the future. It was very encouraging for me and my campaign. Some members of parliament, however, were entirely uninterested, including Dian Abbot, one of the few black members of parliament. Even the chairmen of the parliamentary group on AIDS whose self-styled position was that of the “voice of the voiceless”, advised me with no uncertain terms to discontinue wasting my time burdening. But despite these very few negative responses, there were indeed some encouraging efforts by other members of Parliament and cabinet members like Paul Boating, and a support and sympathy letter from Chancellor Gordon Brown.
After a lot of letters, pressure and tabled emotion in parliament by liberal democrat MP Tom Brake and Hillary Benn started to give attention to my proposal and I been asked to give a presentation to the DIFD. On the proposed day of the presentation, me and my comparing mate, three DIFD officials and one private consultant who they hired (in 2003, DIFD spent £780 million on consultant fees alone, one fourth of the budget of the department or three times of the money needed to implement this life-saving project) to study my proposal in the meeting. What I learned quickly of the officials is that they are not interested in my presentation; they were only there to tell Mps that they had a meeting with me and to tell me what they decided with their consultant. That is to find help from the World Bank, UNAIDS, etc. The reason they gave me UK government works thought this multinational agencies. The truth is that the UK government policy works through country programmes. This means that the aid programs for different African countries are different program and depends on British government interest in that country. My project is African continent wide. The only way to make this drug very affordable and sustainable is to have a big market to produce it in big volumes. But the British government has different policies on AIDS for each African nation depending on its interest, not on humanity. So they don’t have an African continent wide aid policy or political will to save lives like what Tony Blair preaches. For any pharmaceutical company to survive, it need more than £100 billion GDP economy per year. That’s why all national African pharmaceutical businesses have failed. Africa needs less than £ 0.50 a day and one continental targeted not-for-profit pharmaceutical company who produces in mass and distributes and monitors throughout Africa, who doesn’t seek profit from people’s lives. This African AIDS action proposal is the only way to make this life-saving drug universally accessible and sustainable in Africa. Not by dumping billions of tax payers money on corrupt African government or the powerful western charities who don’t have a good plan nor political will to save human lives. That’s why they are always failing despite billions of investment and endless self publicity.
The conservative party shadow secretary for international development, MP Alan Duncan, has demanded parliament debate about an African AIDS action proposal to solve the AIDS crisis in Africa through conservative MP Hugo Swire. The house speaker accepted it and fixed a date for debate on October 2, 2005 in west minister hall.
On the debate date, International secretary Hillary Benn, Alan Duncan MP, Tom Brake MP, Lib-Dem shadow secretary for international development Hugo Swire MP, and other MPs, Representatives of the pharmaceutical companies, etc. chaired by the deputy house speaker of the parliament were present. The debate started by Hugo Swire MP saying “We must ask ourselves why. After 10 years of campaigns and efforts to focus world attention on the issue, only 50.000 of the 4.1 million Africans suffering from full-blown AIDS are currently receiving treatment. That figure is so minimal that it cannot but call into question the entire premise on which the international communities effort have hitherto been based. Worldwide effort to generate more publicity for the AIDS pandemic have sadly failed to translate into increased drug availability for those who need it most - those on the African continent. I want to focus on the best way of tackling the problem to ensure that victims of this terrible disease are provided with the best possible treatment in the 21st century”. He highlighted the failed policy and campaigning. This was followed by Alan Duncan MP’s quote: “At present, ARVs can be produced at a far lower cost than ever before and there is massive need. But the extreme demand is not accompanied by the necessary purchasing power among the needy. A key policy option would be to bridge that gap by combining the most economic production of ARVs with a dramatic extension of the ability of patients to pay for them and encourage government to embrace our proposal”. Lib-dem Tom Brake MP says “Africa AIDS Action. I shall call it AAA from now on to avoid repeating myself. Aims to produce large quantities of essential anti-AIDS drugs and to price them at an affordable level so that Africans, assisted by the international community, can have universally free access to HIV treatment”. He pleaded with Hillary Benn MP to support the proposal and make a real difference. The secretary of state for international development responded: “On the African AIDS Action proposal, I congratulate the organization on its enthusiasm and ambition” and then continues his excuse as to why he will not support our proposal, like what he did the entire year.
I felt like I achieved something because my proposal was debated in the world’s oldest and famous parliament almost for two hours. But at the same time, I felt my campaign reached a dead end for the moment in this parliament. The political parties, Mps, lords and other politicians who supported me said they can’t do more than this to change government policy.
As a grassroots organization, we back those ordinary people who have helped me save my brother, sister, and other relatives’ lives, my HIV positive sister to have a healthy baby, to run an AIDS awareness campaign, to lobby government parliament that was financed and supported by those ordinary people who just who want to make a difference. Not like the government who give to improve their image or protect their interest. It is possible by asking 13 million people from around the world to give only £25 we can make this life-saving drug to make it universally accessible to millions of dying fellow Africans. Already, a lot of our donations and moral support comes from USA, Canada, Australia, Europe, and sometimes Asia and Latin America.
From the middle of 2005, I started to establish African AIDS Action in America and Canada as a non-profit organization. At the end of 2006, my organization granted license from the USA government as a not-for-profit organization. I developed a business plan for my organization to raise money in 26 countries around the globe. And me and my organization are ready to start the “Save my family’s lives” campaign.
Still I am losing my family and friends. I lost my little baby niece, my sister-in-law and 42 other family and friends; 47 of my relatives and friends are still facing death from AIDS because they can’t afford medication, as well as other millions of fellow Africans to this treatable disease. Still everyday thousands of our newborn babies are infected with HIV from their mother in pregnancy because their mother has no access to medication. But I am not a complete loser; I saved my brother; my sister was not only saved here, she had an HIV free healthy baby thanks to the generosity of people who support me. Their donations were able me to supply this life-saving drug to 13 AIDS sufferers. These drugs make miracles. Now more than any time I have a clear detailed vision to extend the chance that my brother, sister and other sufferers to other millions of fellow Africans. I am healthy; I lost six stone and confident. I will save the remainder of my family’s lives. I am full of hope and optimistic.
I know I still have a long way to go to achieve my goals. But I fine. I will keep my promise always. I did keep it for seven years. I lived as an ascetics, vegan, teetotal, as an athlete and committed campaigner to make this life-saving drugs universally accessible. To be very spiritual, purposeful, focused, simple, always remembering and coping well with the daily pain. I have this big smile on my face because we will win over AIDS. I have big hope and love in me despite what happened to me and my family. I am fighting back and very determined not to sit down and see my young brothers and sisters die.
From the 6 billion world population, if only 12.5 million people donate £25 each this life-saving AIDS drug will be universally accessible to any one who needs to save his or here life, or to protect their unborn child from HIV infection during pregnancy. And I will have the chance keep my beloved family alive forever in my life time. Could you be part of this life-saving project, hope, vision and change? Please be part of it. Make a donation and feel good by being one of these 12.5 million people who will change and become history makers. Send your cheque P.O.BOX 303 Rainham Essex RM13 8QL or log on