Written by Giovanna and Martin Brennan
Housed on the bottom floor of the 2012 International AIDS Convention, the Global Village gave a panoramic and poignant view of the world of HIV/AIDS. While the upper floors of the convention center featured policy makers, scientists, corporations, international organizations, and large NGOs, the Global Village was the grassroots, bringing together the rainbow of sexual preference, gender diversity, and the geographic diaspora of humanity involved in fighting the pandemic. The Global Village became a community--a little cocoon of safety where people interacted with each other in a freely accepting atmosphere rarely found in conventional society. For us in particular, it was heartwarming to feel at home again, as if we were back in the various countries where we have lived, through the presence of the African, Asian, and European delegations represented in the Global Village.
The Global Village was the most colorful and emotional of the conference venues--the level where the real lives of people living with HIV and its devastation were played out in a variety of ways: networking sessions with advocates for needle exchange; protection in prisons; the issues of poverty and HIV/AIDS; booths advocating male circumcision, protection of commercial sex workers, male and female condoms, access to ARVs, income projects and much more. Songs, dances, costumes, marches, protests, and signs expressed the hopes and frustrations, the achievements and urgency of everyone involved. It was good to see TASO and the memory book projects from Uganda, which were cutting edge interventions a decade ago. Their presence in the Global Village underlined how much progress has been made in combatting the pandemic.
Snippets of presentations in the various networking zones conveyed strong advocacy and de-stigmatization. Everyone felt free to be who they are without fear of repercussion -- from the sex worker, to the religious minister, to the drag queen. It was a very comfortable place where everyone was "in the choir," a moment of rest within the struggle.
Like many people, we too picked up with gusto the buttons, t-shirts, stickers, bells, bags, pens and more. At the same time, we met a grandmother from Uganda who was looking for cash donations to buy food for the orphanage she runs for HIV-positive children. Our son, who worked many years in HIV/AIDS support and advocacy and even participated in a vaccine trial, reminded us that without the sometimes in-your-face public presence, including paraphernalia and demonstrations, we would probably not be as far along as we are in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Still, we can't help but think that the money spent on the t-shirt could provide food for a child. In time, perhaps, that t-shirt will end up on the straw mat of a used clothing shop in an open air market somewhere and may clothe another child.
Celebrities and senior government officials came to the Global Village to offer encouragement; scientists came to share their work. That said, while the escalators ran endless round trips, bridges between the Global Village and the upper floors of the conference were probably less travelled than the organizers would have hoped. One wonders how the Global Village may have influenced the conference and beyond.
While the Global Village displays have now been packed and cleared out, we are confident that many of the contacts made and experiences shared will endure. The bonds that formed through countless, often spontaneous, interchanges validate and inspire the community of grassroots advocates. If history is any indicator, the upper floors--the policy makers and private sector—will ultimately heed the call of the villagers.