Jamaicans are primed to contend with all who speak ill of their country. As someone who grew up and lived in Jamaica until my midtwenties—although I now live in the US—I understand how the culture reacts to criticism.
[Editor’s note: Gideon Mendel’s photo essay “Looking AIDS in the Face” is not available online due to rights restrictions. It is only available in the print issue. To order a copy of the Winter 2006 issue, please click here. To subscribe and [...]
t is so hot here the highway melts everyday. Vehicles flattening it to oily, gleaming blacktop. I am sitting at a plastic table on a hot concrete step at the Pensao Montes Namuli, watching the road, drinking a dark, malty domestic beer called Manica. The bottle is cool and slippery in my hand. The air smells of tar. The earth simmers in the brown heat, even as dusk approaches. Guy reckons it’s 35 degrees centigrade. I smoke another cigarette. The sun sinks towards the dust-hazed horizon.
Race, as much as science, has been central to the growth of medicine and public health as professions in America. Nineteenth-century physicians distinguished themselves from their competitors in the healing business, cornering the market in part through their embrace of scientific approaches to cure; today, similarly, the medical profession holds off competition from alternative therapies by indulging in “evidence-based medicine.” But, from early on, one of medicine’s less publicized attractions was its capacity to tender rationales for our obsession with race. White people’s suspicion that blacks were morally inferior was perfectly satisfied by prominent physicians’ assertions that African Americans had a greater propensity for disease, imaginary as that propensity turned out to be.
In 2001, a group of scholars at University of California, San Francisco came up with a scheme that they hoped would protect African women from HIV. They had been working in Zimbabwe, a poor, politically troubled nation in Southern Africa, where the epidemic had killed more than a million people over two decades. Virtually everyone in Zimbabwe was aware of AIDS. The country had been exposed to anti-AIDS media campaigns since the 1980s and a school-based AIDS education program since 1994. Nevertheless, by 2001, around a quarter of all Zimbabwean adults were infected with HIV, and the virus was spreading rapidly, especially among teenage girls. It was urgent for researchers like them to come up with a solution.
In August 2001, I was strapped into the passenger seat, speeding along the highway between Johannesburg and Pretoria, the capital of South Africa. On the edge of every shantytown and encampment, we passed two invariable landmarks: shacks with men sel [...]