25 July 2010

Vienna proudly presents: The XVIII AIDS Conference!

• 19,300 participants, including:
- 16,012 delegates
- 845 participants from Austria*
- 1,218 participants from Eastern Europe and Central Asia
- 848 scholarship recipients
- 1,276 media delegates
• 770 volunteers
• 197 countries represented
• 10,831 abstracts submitted, 6,238 abstracts accepted
• 248 sessions (59 non-abstract driven sessions, 79 workshops, 110 abstract-driven sessions)
• 19 plenary speeches
• 18 special sessions
• 279 Global Village activities, including 55 sessions, 95 NGO booths and 27 Networking Zones

* Does not include general public participation in the Global Village, which is difficult to estimate.

AIDS 2010 in Vienna

For a good 1.5 hour summary of the five day event, have a look at the Rapporteur Session embedded below (a handful of VIPs elected to filter through the sessions and give feedback). If you want to jump straight to the rapporteur session of your preferred Track, I suggest you go straight to the WEBSITE of the Kaiser Family Foundation, where you can watch all kinds of webcasts: daily plenary sessions, press conferences, opening and closing remarks, interviews etc. (Social and Behavioural Sciences are Track D; Policy, Law, Human Rights and Political Science are Track F).

Human Rights and HIV/AIDS: Now More Than Ever
On 20 July 2010 many delegates took to the streets on the Human Rights March, after an address and free concert by Annie Lennox (who actually had performed in the Oxford Play House the week before as I know from somebody who worked on that event backstage). The open air gig took place in front of City Hall which is also the annual venue of the Life Ball, a popular high profile drag ball with public gala and fashion extravaganza to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS while being a great party for everyone. This year's Life Ball kicked off the conference and was attended by VIPs Bill Clinton, Whoopie Goldberg, Liz Hurley and so it was rumoured, Kylie Minogue as surprise guest.

"The Human Rights and HIV/AIDS: Now More Than Ever joint statement was originally drafted for the XVI International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2006) by 25 leading HIV/AIDS and human rights organizations, under the leadership of the Law and Health Initiative of the Open Society Institute’s Public Health Program. It has since been endorsed by over 650 HIV/AIDS organizations worldwide, as well as by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Development Programme, and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

Now More Than Ever represents the hope of AIDS activists everywhere to place human rights at the center of the global AIDS response. It presents ten simple reasons why protecting human rights is essential to public health, particularly for a disease such as HIV that affects the most marginalized in society: women and girls, children, people who use drugs, sex workers, men who have sex with men, transgender persons, prisoners, people needing palliative care, and others whose voices are rarely heard in the debate over how to allocate resources for health."

The Vienna Declaration:
"The Vienna Declaration is a statement seeking to improve community health and safety by calling for the incorporation of scientific evidence into illicit drug policies. We are inviting scientists, health practitioners and the public to endorse this document in order to bring these issues to the attention of governments and international agencies, and to illustrate that drug policy reform is a matter of urgent international significance."

You can read the full text HERE. So far, nearly 1400 people have endorsed the declaration.

Screenings in the Global Village
Watched The Other City, a documentary by Susan Koch about the fact that not even half a mile from Capitol Hill, you find evidence of Washington D.C.'s under-addressed HIV/AIDS epidemic (2-3% HIV prevalence). Quite fitting then that the capital will host AIDS 2012 under the Obama administration. The documentary itself is quite interesting, as it follows the lives of different groups of people but on the other hand, its structure is quite chaotic which makes it a bit confusing to watch.

Diamonds, a documentary film directed by Mikael Enlund of women living with HIV in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. The film received support by UNIFEM and might pop up in film festivals during the coming months.

Shuga: If your regional interest is more Africa-related, I recommend visiting the vibrant WEBSITE of this mini series on MTV Ignite – Kenya. In partnership with UNICEF and PEPFAR. A must see!

"Brand new from the MTV Staying Alive stables is a new campaign that challenges young people to ignite a movement to change their sexual behaviour, and turn previously held norms on their heads to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS specifically in Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago, and Ukraine. This campaign, under MTV’s award winning global HIV/AIDS campaign, Staying Alive, will address sexual networks, multiple partners, drug use and living with HIV, all in the context of national cultures and norms.

Kicking off all campaigns are explosive dramas in the three countries, all locally shot and produced, that will take a microscopic lens into the lives of young people who could be you, your best friends, your cousins or just random people you want to invite into your homes. You’ll love them, you’ll hate them, and you’ll want to see how their stories end."

Condom is the Word: If you're in for a laugh, you should see the really hilarious VIDEOCLIP about a smart multi-media campaign by the BBC World Service Trust in India building on the fact that men who talk about condoms are also more likely to be consistent condom users.

Networking in the Global Village - Featuring the Harmony Home Association Taiwan
A real treat for me was to see the potential power of such a large-scale conference where researchers, campaigners, professionals and other representatives come together from literally around the world to engage in dialogue with one another and to be visually confronted with so many people who all want to make a change - be it within their community or within global policy. I had my own opportunity to plunge into the networking frenzy, kindly facilitated by a friend from the US whom I had met while in Kuala Lumpur who visited a shelter in Taiwan which happened to be accomodating not only AIDS orphans but also children of Southeast Asian migrant workers! I therefore made the lovely acquaintance of a young Filipino missionary who strangely enough had only seen my US friend last week when I haven't had a change to see him again in nearly a year. Also, it is quite a coincidence I happen to be in Vienna and that I happen to know a SOAS Alumni working for human rights in Taiwan who might be interested in visiting the shelter and whose ex-colleague was also in Kuala Lumpur. Also, the lady from HHAT happens to have some links to the UK herself. The world is a global village indeed!

The HHAT is an organisation founded in its first form 23 years ago by Nicole Yang who since has been dubbed the Mother Teresa of Taiwan despite any controversy regarding the sensitive issue of HIV in Taiwan. I pasted a brief summary below from their bilingual WEBSITE:

"We provide shelter and care for people living with and children affected by HIV/AIDS, particularly those with financial and physical difficulties, ensuring adequate social care and support, and medical assistance. At present, all the shelters combined has a capacity of 40 beds for severely ill AIDS patients in need of intensive care, and 54 beds for those who were discharged from hospitals but destitute and homeless. We also provide 10 beds for foreign workers and nationals referred by the Taiwan National Immigration Agency to stay for a short period of time, and for HIV-positive IDU's, many who are under the Methadone treatment.

We provide children affected by HIV who are under our tutelage with basic education. Many kindergartens and schools refuse to accept children who are infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. That is why there is much need to protect the health status of every child and keep their condition confidential. At present, HHAT has a private teacher for the younger children teaching basic kindergarten education. The older children go to different primary schools around Taipei city."

I am glad I had this positive experience of international buzz in the city!

20 July 2010

My Grandmother's Ashes

There were quite a few things I expected upon returning to Austria a day after my grandmother's death. Going to the magistrate to order a cremation straight after being picked up on arrival and then after that, accompanying my family to the morgue to see my grandmother's body for the last time only a few hours after setting foot in Vienna was certainly not one of them.

On the journey from London, I had prepared myself for seeing the first dead body in my life. I imagined a groomed, made up and dressed body in an open coffin, as is customary in the Philippines (in Austria, they seal the coffin at the funeral, so death is a rather sterile business). Being rushed to the see the unembellished face of death by a bunch of relatives who had seen dead people before as part of their cultural and professional background was not quite what I had in mind and so I declined and instead decided to wait outside with my infant cousin. It is a shame for I believe it is important to see the deceased to fully comprehend the abstract notion of human mortality and accept the death of a loved one. Besides, it might be better for the first dead body to be somebody who had been washed and frozen rather than somebody whose mutilated body had been lying in the sun for too long as I am bound to see eventually as an aid worker.

I spent the first week in Vienna at my Filipino family's place which was quite convenient. As is also customary in the Philippines, the family invites friends to pray for nine days. Usually, this happens as part of the wake in a rented chapel with the open coffin. Dozens of people show up anytime around the clock to join in group prayer (called "novena") and talk about the person who passed away, the circumstances of their death, the timing, perhaps like when death was the result of an illness, that it was a good thing the person died. In the city, they also bring their take-away food from outside as they stay for a few hours. In Austria though, the body would not be released by the government. Since there was no point then in renting a chapel, my family hosted a daily buffet at home with a with a framed picture of my grandmother surrounded by religious statues, a candle burning 24 hours in a lantern and every day, a plate of the food we were eating. I guess the social function it serves is to enforce community cohesion and share emotional support. It also provides opportunity to remember the deceased in life and discuss the last moments with several people again and again, surely important to overcome the shock of my grandmother passing away so quickly due to complications after what was supposed to be a life-enhancing surgery.

So every day, 20-30 people dropped by in the evening and in addition to the already unusually hot and humid weather which is reminiscent of Southeast Asia, working on job applications in the living room with three separate dishes being prepared in an open-plan kitchen before people arrived was quite a challenge, to say the least. Even the electric fans were not able to keep up.

There are also quite a few debatable rules for events like these which can differ from province to province, city to village: You are not supposed to thank people when they donate money to the family left behind; you are not supposed to see leaving guests to the door; you must not sweep the house (for it shoos away the spirits which is bad luck); you are not supposed to give people food to take home (as happens most of the time when you have people over for a meal) but any food left over from the nine days must be disposed of on the last day. What a waste of food! Normally, it is also not allowed to serve "fruits like watermelons", as somebody explained to me but since this was the last food my grandmother requested when in hospital, we served it a lot as dessert. It was quite interesting as an anthropologist to follow the discussion of these rules and beliefs. Some referred to their village shaman as point of reference (I was wondering if it was a genuine shaman or a more commercial shaman who deliberately seeds confusion to stay in business) - a typical manifestation of the famous religious syncretism in Southeast Asia.

There also is quite some numerology involved. Probably in reference to Jesus's resurrection, it is commonly believed that the deceased will make an appearance to loved ones in the three days after passing away (ie strange coincidences or a warm embrace or hearing a voice when one is alone). On the ninth day, the soul is said to ascend to heaven and that is I believe, when the burial should normally take place. Cherished objects are placed in the coffin and friends or family pin ribbons with their names on the upper lid of the coffin. I believe my family asked the pathologist to tell the undertaker to put the shirt my grandmother had picked for my cousin's first birthday into the coffin (unfortunately, she did not fit into it anymore after she died so she was dressed in another shirt - again, in the Philippines the family can dress the body if they like while in Austria they are not allowed to).

For a year, people are supposed to wear sombre clothing, nowadays often substituted by a black pin. It also supposedly brings bad luck to marry during this year. On the anniversary of the person's death, a final prayer will be made and the period of mourning will be over. On All Souls Day, people go to the cemetery and have picnics right there and then with their passed away loved ones. I find it quite a beautiful tradition for it shows that you do not forget that person while at the same time celebrating life. The day can be far from quiet however but is more of festival character, not unlike Día de los Muertos in Latin America if perhaps not quite as colourful and bold. To get an idea of the All Souls celebrations in the Philippines, have a look at THIS video clip from Philippine news channel GMA TV about the 80 000 people flocking to a cemetery in Manila.

Usually, people are buried as a whole but I believe my grandmother asked to be cremated. The ceremony was quite nice. A friend of the family brought yellow roses for people to put on the coffin (yellow was my grandmother's favourite colour). My younger aunt who is gifted with a beautiful voice, sang a song. A Filipino priest came (my grandmother was a devout but moderate Christian) to send her off spiritually with a mini mass. Another friend of the family recorded the whole event on video for other family and friends of my grandmother abroad to be able to watch the ceremony later.

The next step is to take my grandmother's ashes back to Manila (she was only visiting in Austria), so her friends can take leave from her and so her last remains can be buried in a cemetery at home. Quite expensive to find flights at such short notice in summer but important enough to try and count every penny together. It helps that my grandmother had travel insurance on her return ticket and that there is a person in my family's extended network who is a travel broker for a Philippine travel agency and was able to find a more affordable deal. I declined an offer to have my flight paid for because I knew that person would dig deep into their pockets only to enable me to accompany my grandmother, attend the burial and see the Philippines for the first time in ten or so years as part of a big reunion. Also, I really have to find a job as soon as possible and promised to attend two weddings this summer.

Quite a welcome in Vienna.

04 July 2010

Catharsis - Don't Look Back in Anger

"Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising each time we fall" - Confucius

Running the danger of being criticised of inflating established classifications of certain groups of people for what appears to some a perhaps terribly cheesy and self-pretentious post, I nevertheless decided that taking some notes on my ongoing reflection about this academic year's events would be a good start in reaping their lessons and moving on:

A while ago, I found myself in a tutor's office in the rather uncomfortable position of the formal necessity to share a (true!) tale of homelessness, poverty, illness and betrayal and feeling rather silly for being so worked up about these problems' impact on my future when - at least to me - there are people with seriously worse problems in the world: Famine, house shelling, exploitation, enslavement, war - you name it.

At the same time, during my rushed account, I couldn't help but notice the irony that my story was vaguely reminiscent of a refugee's (or maybe I'm just really fixated!): I kept thinking to myself, "How on earth did I turn into a nano refugee?" and instantly mentally flogged myself in disgust for even remotely comparing my situation to that of a refugee. But hold the thought right there - are the two really so different?

- I left my house because I was not feeling safe there
- Homelessness
- Government authorities were not much use
- A clandestine stay in a place where it was hard to breathe and where it was not possible to drink or use the toilet. I was not sure which scenario was worse: Losing consciousness and not being found for several days or being found and having my library credentials revoked right before exam period in addition to other problems
- Asset depletion: I sold several books to Blackwell's second hand section to buy a few day's groceries with it in lack of other funds
- Periods of malnutrition followed by eventual collapse of immune system due to stress
- Frustration at the external interruption of my life and a strong will to reclaim control over it
- Finally, if you knew my tutor, you would find this even more ironic for there were quite a few rather strange coincidences which results in...
- ... fear of not being believed one's story of expulsion and flight, in a formal setting.

Sound familiar?

Is this one of the lessons I am supposed to take from recent events: To experience the financial hardship and emotional distress in the face of general daily insecurity to make me a better aid worker? Is it life's lesson on the impatience of youth? Or is it a warning reminder to review my priorities in life and be less of a workaholic?

And yet, I found it entirely justified to be concerned about my future. After all, there has been considerable financial, emotional and energetic investment in my studies. Life is short, time is costly, dreams are aplenty and patience is running out. Call me an idealist but I like to believe that anyone can achieve their goal if they are dedicated enough. The road there can be longer for some and shorter for others and of course, a pinch of confidence always helps. Luck also never did anyone any harm.

In spite of all this focus, I realised with shock sometime later that I believe that, exacerbated by the stress of exams, I slid dangerously close to being "taken over by the dark side", in other words: Doubt, rage and bitterness. I guess this reaction is only human. The short trip to Vienna was therefore a soul-saver: Distancing yourself from a certain context and from your stress factors is the 101 of putting things into perspective.

And so, keeping in mind that after every crisis, there usually is space to reflect and reorient yourself, I thought of fun things I would like to do which are not related to study or work at all and which I neglected for a whole year to score at uni.

When I moved to Oxford, the city's vibe struck a familiar chord - the rich and accessible cultural life I am used to from Vienna. I was suddenly surrounded again by posters for events regarding classical music, jazz, renaissance chorals, drama, fine arts and poetry. Plenty of inspiration!

I realised that there were actually quite a few things I would love to do (again), such as finally taking up professional vocal classes, attending a creative writing workshop and playing the piano again but this time exploring other music genres apart from classical music. I also set eyes upon a local documentary film-making workshop which is quite good value for money and which I hope to be able to afford in a few months' time.
I still want to learn how to bellydance and should contact a professional bellydance goddess who I used to study anthropology with and go to one of her affordable and always over-booked classes.
I could also try to learn Silat, a Malaysian/Indonesian martial art; or Eskrima, a Filipino martial art which was developed in resistance to Spanish colonial rule and teaches self-defense with sticks or interchangeable items of everyday use, for example umbrellas. On the more long-term and pricey end, I would like to do a proper course on rock-climbing techniques (the highest I ever climbed up was 12m, I think) and learn how to ride a horse.

Yes, I believe I should try to unwind a bit from this year's study craze and enjoy what I hope to be ultimately be earning a living with to preserve - life.