Know your epidemic…

Today is Youth Day and a national holiday in Zambia. To mark it, the President hosts a major ceremony in town where large numbers of children are conscripted to march past representing the various schools and youth movements in the country. Curious to get my first taste of Zambian pomp and pageantry I dropped by.

I was fortunate enough to nab a spot very close to the President’s podium and waited in the warm sun with a  crowd of a couple of hundred Zambians for their President to arrive. When he did, it was without too much fuss and after a short religious service we settled back to watch the military bands and schools make their way past.

To be honest, I tired fairly quickly of the somewhat lackluster procession of different groups marching in just such a way as to let you know that they were not there by choice. So I began to make my way slowly up the route of the procession to where countless schools and youth movements were waiting to take their turn. Towards the back of the line I was stopped in my tracks by the sounds of a large youth group singing traditional songs and dancing. It was so out of character with many the other soulless marchers that I was forced to just stop and enjoy the marvelous music.

As I stood looking on, one of their team came over and asked if I would take some pictures for them. I was more than happy to oblige and began taking a number pictures from a series of angles. It was only as I snapped the shots that I noticed what was printed on the back of their t-shirts. They were all from a youth group living with HIV/AIDS.

There is a UNAIDS program at the moment called ‘Know your epidemic’ which aims to help countries and communities identify those at risk and how best to support those living with HIV/AIDS. Well here is Zambia’s epidemic – it’s young, it’s vibrant and it’s singing from the top of its voices on an otherwise very drab official march. Oh and you’d never know it unless they chose to pop on those t-shirts for an official march.

It is sometimes very hard to reconcile the prevalence of over 20% of Zambian living with HIV/AIDS when you fail to see ill or gaunt people walking on the streets. It is only at certain moments such as when you are confronted with such a group proudly identifying their status do you understand just how many young Zambians in the prime of their lives are being caught up in this epidemic and the horror of what this means for Zambian society as a whole. Yet there was no gloom here today, only music and dance – I can think of no finer group as ambassadors for the term ‘living positively’.

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