Wednesday, August 30, 2006

AIDS 2006 Toronto: Through the eyes of a craftster

This is the world's largest HIV/AIDS conference. Held every two years, the biennial event held this month in Toronto drew 24,000 attendees, including Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, in addition to the usual motley of scientists, health care providers, political, community and business leaders, journalists, government, non-governmental and intergovernmental representatives, and people living with HIV.

I had been hoping Youssouf, the young Malian M.D., would come so I could hand him some carders for the women of Segou. Instead, he gave me the cell phone number of his boss, the Malian National AIDS Council Executive Secretary, who was roaming the convention center with the Malian Minister of Health. After two brief phone calls about a possible meeting, I gave up the idea of asking two African high officials to carry the carders for me.

Enter Djelika Diallo, a commercial sex worker (CSW) who had flown all the way from Mali to read the story of Danaya So -- the Malian organization of CSWs -- under the auspices of the Montreal-based group called Stella.

The moment I took out the carders, Djelika's eyes lit up. She said in French, "I recognized them instantly because my grandmother had a pair. We don't see new ones like these anymore because they have stopped making them. The only way we can get hold of them is if we find old ones." I requested Djelika to take them back home with her and get them to the women of Segou since Danaya So has a branch there.

The lighter side of a serious international gathering included lessons on making condom pins. This young craftster fashioned for herself what she called a "safety belt".

I lined up to get a free t-shirt hand-painted. It was a looong line. Then I thought, "Why do I have to have someone do the design?" I embellish t-shirts at home all the time. So, I volunteered to paint other people's t-shirts to help shorten the line. Then, when this group of AIDS activist from Peru ran out of t-shirts to give away, I painted my own. The idea was to paint over the silkscreened letters "VIH" (French and Spanish for HIV) and turn it into "VIDA". Of course, I changed mine to "VIE".

Finally, a fashion exhibition. Can you guess what these fabulous clothes are made of? Hint: they're not made of fiber.

Who'd 'ave thunk??? They gave out training on how to put on and take off a condom in the dark.