Dispatches from Durban

In my past life working at Partners In Health, the bi-annual AIDS Conference was a Big Deal. In the months leading up to the conference, colleagues in Haiti or Lesotho prepared abstracts and posters, applied for scholarships, and planned travel. As logistics and operations folks, my team and I never attended IAS (the International AIDS Society sponsors the event, and we referred to it by this shorthand acronym), but we helped with the preparations, shipping materials to the conference site or buying cardboard tubes to transport posters.

For those of us who were not there, the stories coming back from the IAS conference were about solidarity and activism, collaboration and partnership. Reuniting with old friends, establishing new connections, and sharing successful interventions.  Progress. Access.

In my current life in an ever-changing role for a Dutch organization, I found myself in Durban last week for the 2016 AIDS Conference. After so many years hearing about the event, it was a bit surreal to be there in person.

Durban hosted the conference in 2000 – the first time that an African country was chosen to host. It was a moment when millions of Africans were still fighting for access to HIV medications. It was also a period of AIDS denialism in South Africa.  Both the President and the Health Minister publicly claimed that HIV did not cause AIDS, and promoted the use of herbal remedies. As a result of their policies, access to life-saving anti-retroviral drugs was delayed and hundreds of thousands of people died.


Condom fashion at its finest.

The history of the 2000 Durban IAS Conference is one centered on anger and protest, and many speakers invoked the memory of that difficult time. But now, 16 years later, the global landscape has changed dramatically. Over 17 million people worldwide receive the HIV drugs they need. South Africa has 3 million people on treatment – more than any other African country. There was much talk at the conference of ending AIDS in our lifetime – halting the epidemic and eliminating new infections by the year 2030. There were inspiring youth speakers and representatives from populations that are overlooked: transgendered individuals, injection drug users, sex workers. There is still passion and anger and activism, and to some degree I think that will exist as long as AIDS exists.

At the same time, there was a sense of tameness to the proceedings. At the end of a beautiful lecture by Edmund Cameron, the South African judge and HIV treatment advocate invited a group of activists to “come take over the stage”. While the message of the activists was important, I couldn’t help but think that 16 years ago, or even 10 years ago, the activists wouldn’t have waited for an invitation. They simply would have disrupted the event and taken over the stage.

On my final day at the conference, I attended a panel discussion about activism through the generations. The moderator did a brilliant job of framing the conversation, sharing memories of past struggles while evoking thoughtful responses from each of the panelists. During the Q & A, an American activist from ACT UP New York took the mic, and spoke (ok, yelled a little) about the lack of anger  within the current HIV/AIDS movement. He talked about the IAS conference and other events being “eviscerated” by the presence of the pharmaceutical companies and government officials. He railed against the fact that the HIV movement is now “friendly” with the very people they used to fight. He talked about the importance of being unreasonable, and he made several unreasonable demands that he encouraged the HIV/AIDS community to take up.


As true today as it was in the 80s.


It was a stirring, necessary reminder that while AIDS may have moved from a health emergency to a manageable chronic disease, it is still a crisis. Access to medication, care for overlooked populations, and sufficient funding are not secured. These issues, and the people whose lives depend on the resolution of these issues, still need our attention. More, they need our action and, when necessary, our anger.


Catching up

Some days go by in a blur, and before I know it, weeks have passed without my having marked them at all. And it’s not as if there haven’t been things worth noting. Just this month, we’ve welcomed family, said goodbye to friends, accomplished some goals and had one very unexpected victory.

I spent some time complaining recently about the Dutch weather, which is probably the least productive activity in all of the Netherlands. Happily, not long after my whining and moaning, the winds changed and the storms blew out.  And our visitors – my brother, sister in law, and a bunch of their friends – were rewarded with a lovely weekend, cool but sunny, perfect for boating. It was a great visit, my brother’s first to Europe, and filled with just the right balance of relaxation and activity. It’s always nice to host guests who just want to sit in the sun and drink a beer canal-side.

The day before my brother’s arrival, I said goodbye to my American friend and biking buddy, Kim. We met last summer, shortly after she arrived in Amsterdam. By chance, we sat next to each other on a warm night at a favorite Portuguese restaurant, and she introduced herself after overhearing us speak English. I later learned that she “never does stuff like that”. Even though she had spent almost every summer in Amsterdam with her Dutch husband and their kids, this was her summer to push herself, to try new things. Talking to us that night was the first in a long series of brave, bold things that she did for herself. With her husband’s sabbatical at an end, she and her family are heading back to their life in Ohio. I will miss our cycling adventures, exploring the back roads and the knooppuntenroute, stopping for tea and sweets along the way. I will miss our conversations, some of the most honest and open I’ve had.

Kim and I were good at cheering each other on, and she has been so encouraging as I  did my own brave, bold thing this spring, and returned to running. Over 2 years ago a painful injury ended my never-very-impressive running career, and I’ve been hesitant and fearful to start up again. But some months ago, I was challenged by my coworkers to sign up for a  race in Amsterdam in September. Sixteen kilometers. Ten English miles. No small thing for someone who has never run more than a 10k. But slowly, I’ve been getting back into it, building up my endurance. I’m running with a fun and supportive group every Saturday (hooray for House of Running!) and my weekend long runs are now in the 9-12k range. It’s been so surprising and rewarding to see my slow but steady work pay off, and to see my performance improve. I may even end up signing up for another race later this year…

And finally, those same influential coworkers convinced me to join in the Euro pool, even though I know nothing about European football. But I paid my entrance fee, set up my account (username: Clueless ‘Murican), made my picks, and selected 4 top scorers – even though I can only name 2 or 3 professional footballers. As luck and the sports gods would have it, halfway through the first round I climbed into first place. And there I stayed.  I didn’t predict the final winner,  but I earned enough points to hold onto the top spot. Tomorrow I’ll be presented with my prize and I will do my best to be a gracious and humble winner. But of course, as an American and a sports fan, in my head I’ll be running a victory lap, or doing an end-zone dance…a proper American celebration of a win.



Dear Amsterdam summer,

Look, I’ll be honest: I didn’t move here for the weather. I knew about the endless rain, the wind, the short winter days when the sun never seems to rise. And this is not our first time through the cycle of Dutch seasons. We’ve learned to deal with the 5-minute hailstorms and dramatic swings in temperature. We bought rain suits at Hema for cycling in bad weather. I leave the house every day with my umbrella and my sunglasses. Just in case.

But c’mon…it’s July 2nd. Yesterday I was wearing boots and a fleece jacket under my raincoat. Today the sun is shining but the temperature is only supposed to rise to 16. (That’s about 61 for you Fahrenheit folks.) More rain is scheduled for tomorrow.We’ve got visitors in town, and we want to show our guests how lovely you can be, summer. We want to take a boat around the canals and sit and have a beer in the sun at a sidewalk cafe.

So apologies if this sounds rude, but in the spirit of Dutch directness, I have to ask: where the hell are you? Are you ever going to show up? We had some great days in early June, strolling around in skirts and sandals, eating ice cream in the park. Will we ever have that again? Or are you gone for good, leaving us with this mash-up of late-Spring-early-Fall, where we hold our breath and hope for just a light misty rain instead of a downpour?

Maybe all of my complaining and whining will come to nothing in the end, and I should learn to do as the Dutch do. They deal with the weather, put on a raincoat or a scarf, and get on with it. They enjoy the sunny, warm days as fully as they can, moving their couch out onto the street and soaking up every last bit of daylight. And when they want to see you, summer, they head to the south of France.