Art Aids Art

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Sands of Khayelitsha: A World AIDS Day Call-to-Action


Gazing out the window at the Xhosa-orange glow of dawn, sand is the first thing I see.  Overnight, battering winds deposited a half-inch layer on the balcony below my window.  If I were one of the million residents of Khayelitsha, I wouldn’t be surprised.  Sand finds its way onto – and into – everything here. 

Ringed by jagged mountains, Khayelitsha is one of the townships on the Cape Flats, a windswept expanse to the east of Cape Town.  During the Apartheid regime, the government forcibly relocated “non-white” South Africans to this inhospitable dune.  Though democracy replaced Apartheid in 1994, the townships remain, built on an unsteady foundation. 


It is World AIDS Day, December 1, 2009.  I am the first guest at a newly-opened bed and breakfast located within eKhaya eKasi an art and education center designed to create opportunities for the thousands of unemployed residents in the area.  eKhaya eKasi also serves as an oasis to families impacted by HIV/AIDS; the disease seems to have touched every township dweller in some way, with infection rates above 30% for new mothers and as high as 40% for women aged 25-29.  Yet because of the stigma surrounding AIDS, the topic often goes unspoken.  This epidemic that kills 1,000 South Africans daily and infects 1,000 more is like a deadly ghoul lurking invisibly in shadow. 


Running errands, I hope to see a coordinated media campaign akin to what I witnessed on World AIDS Day 2008, with newspaper headlines, publicity banners, AIDS-themed television episodes and even human rights t-shirts on department store employees.  But I am left disappointed.  The Cape Times covers business and politics as usual, and I pass the entire morning without seeing a single red ribbon.  Can political and public attention spans be so short that AIDS cannot be the focus for a single day?

Discouraged, I take solace in the physical beauty of the Western Cape and marvel that the relentless winds have begun to make Baden Powell Road look Saharan as sand swallows up pavement. 


In late afternoon, I return to eKhaya eKasi to help plug the center’s walls with expanding foam.  Gusts have been so powerful that they somehow were able to blast vertically up narrow eight-foot corrugated channels, sprinkling sand into the multipurpose room like snow.  Sweep the room and five minutes later it would need to be swept again. 

As dusk falls, I leave Khayelitsha for the drive home.  The winds are still howling.  My attention wanders as I travel along Baden Powell Road and…WHAM.  Striking a mound of sand, my little VW pitches and slides toward oncoming traffic…I frantically spin the wheel to avoid a collision and the car shoots back across the road, plowing into the dunes and rolling onto the beach. 


Pinned in the car and hanging upside down from the seatbelt, with gas leaking onto the engine block, thoughts race through my head… Sand, the very same damn sand that I took the time to photograph in the afternoon. If only I had paid the same attention now.



Like the sands of Khayelitsha, AIDS is around us and among us.  Let us not sweep it aside or ignore it.  It reaches the young and the old.  One in four Americans who become infected this year will be under 21 and an equal number will be over 50.  

Though there has been progress towards finding a cure, we should not be distracted.  Whether in California or Cape Town, each of us must remain focused on the most basic form of prevention -- educating our family, friends, colleagues and students about myths and realities involving HIV/AIDS. 

For educational resources, click here. 

Tom Harding is Executive Director of Art Aids Art, a nonprofit organization promoting education, wellbeing and sustainable economic development through the arts in South Africa and America.



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