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GABORONE, Botswana—There are two emotions that will forever spring to my mind whenever I recall my arrival in Gaborone, Botswana to conduct HIV/AIDS research. One is of an unbearable excitement to set foot on the African continent for the first time and embark on what promised to be a hugely transformative internship and adventure. The second is of a humored surprise at seeing cows on the road. To me, this was an image that captured the funny stage of development that Botswana is in, where modernity and tradition constantly rub elbows, and it was one that seemed to augur the delights that awaited me during my stay in this new country.
I indeed made unforgettable memories from immersing myself in the unique and peculiar aspects of Botswana’s culture and tourist attractions: seeing giraffes, baboons, and ostriches in their natural habitat; learning a bit of Setswana; experiencing biweekly power outages; admiring the decorated cow horns and hand-carved wooden masks for sale in marketplaces; and sampling delicious traditional Botswana cuisine. But what left a deeper impression on me was the extent of the similarity between Gaborone and Cambridge.
While I was eager to try the traditional maize drink maheu, the Batswana were guzzling coke. Fellow interns from the University of Botswana sent me Facebook friend requests sooner than I could ask if they also used Facebook. And it was not just Western culture that had infiltrated Botswana. On my first visit to the local grocery store, a food server rushed toward me with excitement because she thought I looked like a character in her favorite TV show Boys Over Flowers. I had never imagined that Korean dramas would be popular among Batswana women like Samantha, but by then I had realized that “Gabs” was so globalized that there was nothing to be unexpected. When walking through the store’s aisles, I would be confronted by such a huge variety of foreign brands and products that I’d sometimes forget that I wasn’t back home in North America.
Except there was one key difference: Botswana has the second highest HIV infection rate in the world, a staggering one-third of adults in Botswana are HIV-positive, and HIV/AIDS is the country’s leading cause of mortality. There is nothing, really, in the developed world that is comparable to HIV/AIDS and its far-reaching social and economic impact, both past and present, in Botswana and other high-burden countries. Despite the calm and cheerfulness with which the people I met and befriended went about their everyday lives, the tragedy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic unmistakably lurks within the national psyche.
I felt this from Samantha’s fears about being tested for HIV, confided to me in a hushed voice. I saw this in the startling statistics I read in journal articles and heard discussed at lab seminars. When I accompanied community health workers as they conducted village household surveys for a community-based HIV prevention project, I heard this in the heave of relief from a villager when she found out she was HIV-negative, and deduced this from the fact that large-scale HIV research projects need to be undertaken in the first place. Experiencing first-hand the impact of HIV/AIDS on a high-burden population made me truly understand the scope of the HIV/AIDS problem in this area of the world and put human faces on the victims of this devastating disease. Consequently I felt that the research I did this summer was the most important and imperative that I have ever done.
I had never been as emotionally involved with lab samples as I was during my orientation week at the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP). I was doing a rotation in the DNA/PCR lab and testing blood samples of infants born to HIV-positive mothers for the presence of HIV infection, and each time a test result forced me to draw a circled cross in red ink beside a sample ID I was distraught by the fact that I had diagnosed yet another infant as HIV-positive. When one of the BHP lab assistants told me that he, like most BHP employees, had lost many family members to HIV/AIDS and works with the hope that scientific research will bring about an AIDS-free generation, I understood the strong personal connection between Batswana employed in HIV/AIDS-related fields and their work. Now, having spent a summer alongside the Batswana, many of whom have become cherished friends, inspirational mentors, and lifelong teachers, fighting HIV/AIDS has become a personal mission for me as well.
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