‘I Cried Inside’: Reporting on AIDS in Zambia

In August 2003, Dart Fellows Frank Green and Joseph Rodriguez traveled to Zambia to chronicle the AIDS crisis. The trip, funded by the Dart Center, resulted in a remarkable three-part series published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Aug. 31, Sept. 1 and Sept. 2. Below is an email interview with Rodriguez and Green about the experience.

Q. Each of you have covered some very difficult subjects. How was the Zambia story different from other trauma-related subjects you've written about or photographed?

Frank Green: In the past I've covered the sort of emotional/medical trauma generated by automobile accidents, shootings and other mayhem. The pain is immediate and acute. In recent years, covering the death penalty, I go back and talk to the surviving loved ones of the victims and in some cases interview and get to know the condemned killers. While the emotional trauma can be deep, articulating it is not as difficult for the people being interviewed since many years have passed.

With AIDS, the emotional trauma seemed to be a sort of a combination of the two above: it's both immediate and long-term. Many people with HIV would not talk about it because of the stigma. Others found it easy to talk about a disease that will likely kill them, perhaps because they still had years of life ahead of them. Some felt it was important to be
open about AIDS to help fight the stigma.

Q. What was your relationship to the AIDS story before you went to Africa? And after?

Joseph Rodriguez: Zambia was difficult — to meet and document so many lives affected by the AIDS virus was difficult for me because I have had friends and family die from the disease. I have been covering AIDS stories for 15 years, first in the 1980s in Spanish Harlem, then in 1990 in Mozambique.

I feel that going back to Africa was a reminder that there is much more work to do with this story of AIDS. I would love to go back to Zambia to able to spend more time with families and document the true daily life.

Green: I had never written or thought a great deal about AIDS in this country, much less Africa. I was aware there was a huge problem in Africa, but it didn't register more than those short stories about ferry boat or train disasters in India or Bangladesh.

AIDS is now very real to me. The extent of the problem, even after jumping into the middle of it, is still difficult to comprehend. It is also personal, now, having met many people with the disease.

Q. Describe some of the challenges in gaining the access you needed.

Rodriguez: The largest challenge was getting into the prison, I wanted to be able to photograph freely and talk with many more prisoners

Green: The really difficult work had been handled prior to the trip by Ochas Pupwe, the student running the AIDS testing program at the prison. Access to government officials was almost non-existent. You simply could not interview one. Access to the government-run hospitals was also out of the question. Access to many people or institutions required small "gratuities."

Q. How did you work to bridge the cultural gap with the people you were covering?

Green: For the most part, I didn't run into cultural gaps. Respect and politeness are universally appreciated. Most Zambians spoke perfectly good, though heavily-accented, English, so sometimes it was difficult understanding what was being said.

Rodriguez: The cultural gap was not too much of a burden for me. I loved their music, the people. It was also refreshing to work in a Christian country.

Q. Was there a particular person, or story, that most affected you personally?

Rodriguez: The children affected me the most, so many being on their own. I cried inside as we pulled away from Kwacha Township. Both Frank and I were so quiet in the van as we traveled to another township to visit more widows and orphans. ‘Why the hell does life have to be this way?’, rumbled over and over in brain as the warm sun bounced off my face.

Green: The ill children were difficult to interact with. Most of them were so innocent and did not appear to appreciate — if indeed they knew — how seriously ill they were.

Q: Did you need to protect yourself from emotional effects of the story you were telling? If so, how did you take care of yourself?

Green: I didn't feel I needed to protect myself. I tried to tell the story by relating strictly what I saw so the readers could have their own emotional reaction.

Rodriguez: I protected my self by working with the anger I felt by using the camera to become warmer with the people. Listening to their stories and sharing parts of my life with them also helped but also telling them how all of this sickness was affecting me. (I am a very bad journalist that way, I believe I lost my objectivity).

Q. What did you learn about the people you covered? What did you learn about yourselves?

Green: I learned that there are many very brave people and many selfless people involved in the fight against AIDS in Zambia. But I also learned there are some foolish ones, such as former prostitutes who refused to be tested for HIV. I'd been to the Third World before and had seen deep poverty, yet seeing it again was very sobering and made me question a world where they can be such extremes between wealth and poverty.

Rodriguez: I learned that the people have an amazing amount of strength to be able to persevere and optimism and hope. When I came back home I realized that I was stressing about small things, in Zambia people are struggling to try and stay alive. This trip gave me inspiration to get through life a little better, especially about monetary wants and needs.

Q. Frank — in the Times Dispatch, you describe a particular experience during the trip as "magic." Could you elaborate?

Green: I'd been in Zambia for two weeks and still didn't really feel as if I were in Africa. But after a much-needed day off spent at a game park, seeing Victoria Falls and meeting Zambians I did not have to interview it finally hit me I was in Africa and — all the problems aside — it is an awesome place.

Q. Joe — What will you remember most from the trip?

Rodriguez: What I remember most are the people of Zambia and a quote by Martin Chisulo, who is HIV positive. I asked him why Zambians continue to have so many children, although they have begun to also down the birth rate. His reply:

“We have many children because it is part of our culture. You are considered to be a great man when you have many children. Because we are poor, children are our riches. We also die a lot as we have many diseases and illnesses. Lastly we hope that some of our children will bring us wealth.”