By Nana Bruce-Amanquah
In the interest of mental and physical health, I found a video talking about Africa’s “King of Condoms” to be quite interesting (See the following links: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCnOBd3upGg; https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-50764783/africa-s-condom-king-wants-no-more-hiv-infections). This short story is a fictional idea of why he started his initiative. Interestingly enough, it all starts with a request for condoms.
“Ha! Over my dead body.”
“Please, bro, come on!”
“No! I can’t believe you’re honestly asking me this! Go get your own–” I looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping. Satisfied, I whispered the next word into the phone: “–condoms.”
My older brother Simon laughed so loudly at my clear discomfort that the man behind the kiosk looked up quickly in amusement. I rolled my eyes, trying not to smile at his contagious cackle. He had called right as I was taking a break from studying all day for my teachers training exams. As nice as it was to hear his voice, what he was talking about right now was too embarrassing for me to bear.
“I can’t believe you’re still so touchy about this, Stan,” he said. “You’re a grown man! You know what condoms are. I’m the one who taught you when we were kids after all.”
“Teaching and scarring for life are two different things, and thanks to you I know the difference.”
“Oh, we both know that those discussions were the only way you would have learned about sex otherwise. Do you honestly think our dear father the pastor was going to tell you about what goes in where?”
“I think our dear father the pastor would be shocked to hear what you were requesting of me right now.”
“What, are you going to tell him?” Now it was my turn to laugh. After years of fighting over what his life choices, Simon didn’t really talk to our dad anymore. I did only once in a while so it was unlikely that Dad would hear anything about my brother’s sex life.
“I just might, then you’d leave me alone! Seriously though, don’t you have a girlfriend you could bother about this instead?”
“You want me to ask Natasha to get us condoms? Are you crazy? Just because we want to celebrate her recovery, it doesn’t mean we want to broadcast it to the whole town. Yeah, let me just ask her to head back to the clinic and smuggle some out, you dummy.”
That was a fair jab. Natasha, his girlfriend of the past year, had recently gotten out of the hospital after an accident. She had needed blood transfusions and everything but she was alright now. She was as kind and stubborn as Simon was, but she was also the daughter of a prominent businessman in town. Her purchase of anything scandalous, let alone condoms, would have been ripe for gossip. So would mine, for the record.
“What makes you think I could get condoms so easily?”
“Stanley, please. If Natasha did it, it would be a scandal. If I did it, I’d get dirty looks and then it would be another scandal. But everyone still sees you as the sweet, studious boy that we all like and respect. You’d ask for condoms and they’d think you were actually asking for balloons for your next birthday party or something.”
“Ha ha, you’re hilarious.”
“That’s what I tell people!”
“Look, you’re just going to have to abstain or something because I just looked at there aren’t even any condoms here.” It was true. I had just taken a glance and was surprised to find several types of sanitary towels, but there were no condoms in sight. And if they weren’t here, they probably wouldn’t be at any of the smaller shops in the area.
“Ugh, seriously?? Where the hell is a man supposed to get some condoms? I’m trying to have sex safely, why make it so hard? Maybe you can find them at the supermarket or something. Pleeeease, Stan? I’ll be your best friend.”
“Nice try but you already are my best friend, which is how you know there is no way you’re getting what you want this time.”
I heard him sigh dramatically. “Here I am trying to avoid pregnancy with no reward for it.”
“It’s truly a tragedy. But no, I’m still not buying condoms for you. I also have a reputation to uphold, you know.”
“Whatever, Stan. Just know that if we end up with a kid nine months from now, I’m naming him after you and you’ll know exactly why.”
“Yeah, I’m hanging up now. Bye, Simon. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Ha! It’s years too late for that. Do you know how short that list would be? Can you imagine?”
I hung up on my ridiculous brother as he laughed at me again. I asked the man behind the kiosk for some biscuits and a Malta and waited for him to grab me one from the back. In the meantime, I glanced at the newspapers, screaming with headlines about Moi’s policies, opinions on the IMF, and the growth of HIV prevalence. None of these things really captured my attention. As the man stepped back into the kiosk, I saw a flashy row of shiny wrappers, with strong circular imprints in the middle. Were those–?
“Do you need anything else?” he asked me politely.
“No, nothing, nothing at all,” I said quickly and nervously. I grabbed my malt drink and biscuits and walked away as quickly as I could. At the time, I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to talk or think about condoms for a really long time. It would only take a short while for me to realize that life wasn’t going to work out that way.
“We didn’t use a condom.”
We had been sitting on chairs in the clinic for a while at that point, waiting to hear more news on Natasha. It felt like years since that fateful phone conversation, the one Simon affectionately dubbed “The Condom Crisis”. That had been funny then but neither of us laughed now. Here we were instead, sitting next to each other in increasingly uncomfortable chairs. Simon had been sitting very still with his head in his hands when he said that sentence in the smallest voice I had ever heard him use.
Nothing had been the same since before Natasha got sick. She had been experiencing strange influenza-like symptoms on and off for the past few months after getting out of the hospital. Simon brought her in again expecting to find out that she just had a really bad cold. HIV wasn’t even on their radar. It turns out, however, that blood wasn’t the only thing Natasha had received from those transfusions. Misunderstandings and mix-ups with donors that hadn’t been tested and needles that hadn’t been replaced had created a situation that Natasha would have to live with from now on. The short, sparse pamphlet I was reading said that the human immunodeficiency virus had no cure, no vaccine, and a life expectancy of about 9-11 years without treatment. We heard some of the nurses talking about antiretroviral drugs which could slow down the virus before it turned into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS…if you could afford them.
We didn’t use a condom. When I heard that, my blood ran cold. Natasha came from a wealthy family that could probably access some of the best antiretroviral drugs out there. But if my brother, the eldest son of a lower middle-class family earning a mechanic’s salary, had HIV? It was essentially a death sentence.
My brother had always been the leader between the two of us. But this time, I had to take charge. “Get up,” I told him. “You’re getting tested. Right now.”
For once, Simon didn’t even argue or crack a joke, which was scary. His demeanor made sense: he was in the process of losing someone he loved. And as I waited for him to get up slowly from his chair so that we could talk to a nurse, I realized that I was engaging in the same painful process. It only took about fifteen minutes to find out that my brother was going to die much sooner than either of us expected. No amount of teaching could have prepared me for this.
Time passed and I watched as Simon started to fade away right in front of me. Perhaps the cruelest thing about HIV/AIDS, besides it promising death one way or another, is that it doesn’t take your loved ones right away. It’s slow, gradual, and painful, both for them and for you to witness. The doctors had been clear with me and my father when he had eventually come to visit. This illness was breaking down Simon’s immune system to the point where anything like a basic cold could mean the end.
This week, Simon had a cold.
On this particular day, Simon was in his bed, looking especially sallow and heartbreakingly sad. Although it made me upset, I could understand why our dad’s visits were so sparse. He never said it but whenever he called and asked how Simon was doing, the message was loud and clear: I cannot bear to see my son like this.
Natasha had sadly passed away a few months ago, some time after even her finances could not keep up with the astronomical price of antiretroviral drugs any longer. I think Simon’s condition really started deteriorating at an accelerated rate the moment he knew, as if the heartbreak boosted the AIDS.
I hated that the way I saw him now competed so fiercely with the happier memories stashed in my mind where he was smiling and healthy. I had tried to do something about that when I came to see him yesterday.
I had come in around lunchtime as usual and sat down across from him. He was awake this time and seemed to be feeling a little better, if one could say that. He sat up just staring at me and all of a sudden, I just wanted to hear him laugh again. So I willingly engaged in an embarrassing moment and begged for his forgiveness regarding the infamous Condom Crisis.
“I’m really, really sorry I didn’t get you some condoms.”
His chuckle, as slight as it may have been, was the sweetest sound I had heard in a while. We didn’t say much after that but seeing him smile as he slept made me feel really good.
I watched him sleep again today, a habit I had developed since his diagnosis. I had become a near permanent fixture at the clinic after passing my exams. In between teaching and checking on my brother, I engaged in voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) to talk to teenagers about safe sex and help keep people calm before and after getting tested for HIV. Being around people made happy but it was hard talking to them about a topic that caused me and some of them so much pain.
Working as a VCT counselor was helping me cope a little bit, but it wasn’t enough. I was so angry and sad and scared for the millions of people who were infected and millions more who would be in the future. It was crazy to think that a simple condom could have saved Simon and my family all this trouble. It was crazy to think that an unsuspecting blood donation simultaneously saved and jeopardized Natasha’s life. None of this had to happen and I turned the possibilities over and over again in my head.
Maybe Natasha’s donor got HIV from having unprotected sex from someone else and if they had used a condom, they wouldn’t have died, and by extension, Natasha wouldn’t have died either.
If that donor had been tested, or Natasha had been tested, maybe Simon would have been warned and wouldn’t have taken the risk of having sex without a condom.
Maybe if I had bought those condoms like a good brother, he wouldn’t have this disease.
Maybe if there were more condoms readily available to the populace, Simon and Natasha could have gotten their own condoms discreetly and neither of them would be sick.
Maybe if my father had talked to me about sex like a regular person I wouldn’t have felt so ashamed to say “condom” and it would have been easier for me to buy them.
Maybe if it wasn’t culturally acceptable to shame people about sex, any regular person could ask for condoms at a shop without causing a scandal.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. Engaging in this never-ending cycle felt dragging nails on a chalkboard in my brain. None of these thoughts were leading anywhere productive. I was about to lose my best friend and it was crushing to think that he was just going to be another statistic at the end of the day. I couldn’t bear that. I needed to do something big and meaningful. And I had the pesky feeling that going to work in a suit and teaching students about science wasn’t going to be enough. But where would I start?
What would Simon do?
That’s when I got an embarrassingly bold idea.
———————–One Year Later——————
“You will do no such thing.”
“Dad, I’m not doing anything wrong. This is all public, free, and legal.”
“You can’t seriously think that passing out condoms to the populace and talking to them about sex like it’s no big deal is a suitable career path!”
I tried not to sigh too loudly, knowing that it wouldn’t get me anywhere. Talking with my father on the phone was nowhere near as fun as it used to be to talk to–
It was still painful of course, but I was getting better at thinking about him without sobbing. Sometimes it felt like I lost him just yesterday. I was tired and I knew my dad was tired too. But I had to do this, I had to do something with my life that reminded me of Simon and made me feel close to him. I felt called to do this, to educate others about something that was so important. The condom part was definitely not in the original plan but hey, life could be crazy that way. Much to my surprise, the sex talks I was doing in the street had been going very well so far. People had honest questions and they actually wanted to talk about sex. After talking about it so much in the past year, it started to feel really natural. Considering that HIV had risen to epidemic-level proportions in the past few years, I couldn’t just let this work go.
I tried to explain all of this to my father to no avail.
“Simon, what you are doing is ridiculous and sinful.”
“Dad, what I’m doing is saving lives. It wasn’t that long ago that you felt called to save souls. I feel called to do this, too. People need to know the truth about safe sex.”
“Why can’t they abstain like everybody else?”
“Because just talking about abstinence isn’t enough! Dad, we can discuss the morals behind this any other time. But the facts behind the matter as we speak is that people are dying and that if they are taught to get tested, use condoms, and not share needles, we can slow down the spread of the virus. I can understand that talking about this could be painful or uncomfortable and I’m sorry. But I don’t plan to stop being the African King of Condoms any time soon.”
“If your brother were alive–”
“–he would be cheering me on! You have to know that. And maybe one day you will too.”
He didn’t say anything after that. When he eventually hung up, I took a moment to myself to think about what I had said. I missed him, so much, my beloved brother. Would he have been cheering me on? As I looked at myself in the mirror, with my red peaked cap, my red coat covered with memorabilia, and bag full of Trojans, I thought about how incredibly amusing Simon would have found my whole initiative.
I could almost hear him right now, cackling. “My brother, the African King of Condoms,” he would say. “Can you imagine?” The thought of that made me happy. Despite the difficult conversation with my father and fully aware of the hard times I was sure would follow, I headed out the door for my next condom distribution with a smile.
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