Emotional Rainclouds and Fire Hoses

Starting on Tuesday of this past week the organization I’m working with, LENEPWHA (the Lesotho Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS), was hosting a workshop involving HIV/AIDS testing and counseling, psycho-social support, positive prevention, and palliative care. Five of the coaches from the football part of the project were included in the workshop and I thought that for the most part I would just check in to see how things were going sporadically over the week. I ended up attending the whole workshop. It worked out well. I was able to bring my English-Sesotho dictionary and used the time to improve my language skills. I also ended up being the designated photographer/videographer.

I was pretty happy with my role until the morning of the last day of the workshop. I arrived at the workshop a few minutes late. There were a couple of participants loitering outside smoking, so I just took a second to chat with them before proceeding inside the conference hall. Inside the hall the participants were standing in a circle. On the ground, In the middle of the circle was a large HIV/AIDS ribbon made out of leaves and pebbles.

In my role as photographer I started taking some pictures and video without thinking. It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening. It was a sharing circle - I don't know if this is the correct term, but it describes the activity fairly well.

In an earlier post (doom and gloom binge) I talked about being drawn to this type of work because of the emotions involved. Even though I’m working with an HIV/AIDS organization, with people who are HIV positive, the presence of HIV/AIDS and death seems distant. I am not sure what I expected, but at some level I must have thought that there would be this ever-present cloud of grief raining on everything. It hasn’t been that way and I think the normalcy has surprised me slightly. I would not say that people are suppressing their emotions, but similar to anywhere else there has to be some form of emotional compartmentalization for people and society to function.

If I thought there would be this emotional rain cloud in Lesotho I think the sharing circle showed me that it is actually more like a fire hose. I was in this room with about 30 other people. I was the only white guy – not really an issue because LENEPWHA are incredibly welcoming, notice the picture of me in the traditional Basotho blanket, but it makes me feel like I stand out –

I was the only person who has not been affected by HIV/AIDS, and I was the jackass holding a camera. I couldn’t completely comprehend everything, but from what I heard and what I was told later, people were talking about learning about their status, getting sick, friends and family dying, and discrimination and stigma - families disowning them, friends abandoning them, husbands throwing them out. Almost all of the participants were crying or had tears in their eyes. While telling their stories many became inconsolable – crying hysterically. A couple of minutes in and I wanted to leave that room more than I have ever wanted to leave anywhere, but I wasn’t sure if that would be offensive – as much as I felt like I stood out no one was really taking notice of me. At this moment of trying to decide if I should stay or if I should go the project manager tells me that I can go into the middle of the circle to get some better photos and video. I must have looked like he had turned a fire hose on me from a couple of feet away. I whispered ‘umm…I would not feel very comfortable doing that’. Luckily one of the local LENEPWHA staff was fine with it, so I handed the camera over to him. In retrospect I think that it would have been fine for me to jump in the middle of the circle and shove my camera in peoples’ faces, but at the time it seemed like a horrible idea.

After the activity was over it was like someone turned off the valve on the fire hydrant and everything was back to normal. People who had collapsed in tears only a few minutes earlier were now laughing, joking, and posing for pictures with the HIV ribbon made of leaves.

I can only imagine what it is like to be branded as HIV positive: marginalized, discriminated against, and stigmatized. In a sense you have to put your emotions into a compartment and lock them up. I can only imagine what this sharing circle can provide: a safe space to unlock that compartment, to share, to vent, to console, and to comfort. It was very powerful.

July 18, 2010

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