An Unexpected AIDS Boom in Sudan

Khartoum, Sudan -- In the impoverished Khartoum suburb of Umbadda, 30 year old Mariam Khalifa casts her eyes downward as she tells the story of what was supposed to be a happy homecoming. But it turned out to be a catastrophe.

When the government finally signed the peace treaty with the rebels in August, 2005, her husband, a soldier in the Sudanese army fighting rebels in the southern jungles, came home after 3 years. Her family and friends gathered from all over Khartoum for a big feast. They pitched in to buy a lamb, slaughtered it in gratitude to God.

But as the days passed, Khalifa noticed that something was wrong with her husband. "He was very weak and sick," she says. "He said he felt he was dying."

Five months later, he did die -- of AIDS. He had contracted HIV while in the army. And in the time before he died, he infected Khalifa.

This story is an increasingly common one in Sudan, says Musa Bundugu, who runs the Sudan office of the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). "Among the soldiers, many of them are hiv positive," Bundugu says. "They got the disease in the field. They come back and if they are married, what happens? They pass it to their families, to their wives."

For 21 years, a civil war raged on between the Arab north and the non-Arab south Sudan. The war ended in January 2005, but peace has brought a new threat to the country- AIDS. Bundugu says the civil war ironically protected people from AIDS in Central and Northern Sudan. The fighting stopped trade and transport with neighboring countries hard hit by the epidemic. Peace, he says, has brought back HIV-positive soldiers, and returning refugees. "There are a number of Sudanese that are living in Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and other neighboring countries that are coming back. One or two or three or 10 persons that are positive can make a very big difference in a period of two or three years," he says.

The government at first was reluctant to address the growing AIDS problem. Sudan is ruled by religious conservatives. AIDS is seen as a disease of those with loose morals. But Sudan now has the highest infection rate in the Middle East and North Africa- 400,000 infected as of 2005- and that has forced the government to take the disease seriously.

Until recently government prohibition made buying condoms impossible in the country. Pharmacist Azizah Hussein says the new directives from the Ministry of Health encourage her to sell condoms to whoever wants them, no questions asked. And she says at the cheap price of $1.30 per 3-pack, they are flying off her stand. "I have to refill it every other day," Hussein says, "Most of them are either students, or poorer people. Even young ladies come and buy them for their boyfriends!"

The government has also launched an AIDS awareness program. Posters plastered on street walls around Khartoum proclaim, "Let's eradicate AIDS." State television urges people to "Get tested -- for the sake of your children." Deputy Director of the government AIDS program, Mohamed Siddeeg, says the campaign is working.

"We are seeing a bigger number of cases coming to the hospitals and coming to the voluntary counseling, and testing services," Siddeeg says. "People are finally coming forward and dealing with their illness, instead of hiding in shame."

But according to Musa Bundugu of UNAIDS, although these campaigns are a step in the right direction, much more could be done, with Sudan's newfound oil wealth. He says the Khartoum government wants to rely on foreign money instead of dedicating a local budget to the AIDS epidemic. But there seems to be plenty of money for other projects. "Why do we need to wait till some money comes from abroad if we can make all these beautiful roads in Khartoum?" Bundugu asks. "But who will ride on the roads in the next 10 years? A sick population?"

AIDS patients, most of them poor war veterans, are also angry because they get little government aid. Mohamed Ahmed, a northern soldier, contracted the disease when he was in the south. He says that the government spends money on AIDS prevention, but once he was infected, the government ignored him. "I have four brothers and a mother to support. My father is dead. The government only gave me 10 pounds of sugar! There's absolutely no government support. I don't need 10 lbs of sugar- I need help with projects and jobs so I can feed my family!"

Ahmed and many like him find comfort and support at Khartoum's newly formed People Living With AIDS Association. The group, which has now grown to about 50 members in less than a year, meets in an old three bedroom house in the poor Aldaym neighborhood of Khartoum. Patients come to chat, have tea, and help one another with their common struggles, away from the hostile society outside.

Khadija Adam, a member, is furious that not one government official has come to visit their association- not even Sudan's First lady Widad Babiker, who heads the AIDS Campaign. "We want their presence, but where are they?" Adam says. "We don't care anymore. We've forgotten about the Sudanese government. We are doing well with these NGOs. Thank God, they are helping us and never fail to help."

The group is ethnically diverse -- Muslim Northerners together with Christian Southerners. Khartoum is a Northern city, and many of its residents blame AIDS on the Southerners.

But members of this group don't point fingers. In fact, friendships and love blossom in this unlikely setting. Mohamed Ahmed, a Northern Muslim, tries to convince Rose Deng, a Southern Christian, to marry him.

Rose is angry at the rumor that AIDS was brought to the north by Southerners. "To the people who say this disease came from the south, I say to them- this disease doesn't know north or south," she says. "I'm a Dinka girl. I can fall in love with an Arab who has this disease. It is your fate that God has written for you."
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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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