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close this bookThe Courier N 159 - Sept - Oct 1996 - Dossier: Investing in People - Country Reports: Mali ; Western Samoa (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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Acting against AIDS

by Robert Rowe

Many ways of raising money to fight AlDS have been tried, but one of the most unusual must surely be the approach taken by an official of the European Commission. Robert Rowe, who until last year was an assistant editor on The Courier, put on a oneman show in Brussels and then rook it to the other side of the world to raise money for a voluntary organisation working on AIDS prevention and care in Malaysia. Here is his story of fighting the virus with the power of the theatre.

'By the year 2000, South-East Asia will be host to the majority of the world's AIDS cases.' So runs a stark prediction from the World Health Organisation, quoted in a recent paper from a grouping of NGOs affiliated to the Malaysian AIDS Foundation. It goes on to predict that 'the region faces a potential HIV spread of titanic proportions.' In Thailand, a country with a large population and a sad reputation for prostitution, the HIV threat was recognised relatively early and effective public awareness campaigns have successfully reversed the rise in the incidence of infection. But in neighbouring Malaysia, where stricter religious and social attitudes have inhibited wide public discussion of the disease and its methods of transmission, over 13000 people were HIV-positive at the last count-and that is just the figure derived from the small percentage of the population who have been tested. Activists say the true number is certainly higher and it is growing every day.

The first cases of HIV in Malaysia were found among intravenous drug users and sex workers, and one of the earliest organisations to begin working with people engaged in these high-risk activities was Pink Triangle. This is a voluntary, non-profit-making body which started up in 1987 by setting up AIDS prevention and support programmes for and with the general public and the gay community. Its name, in fact, refers to the pink triangle badge which men sent to concentration camps in Nazi Germany for homosexuality were made to wear. The group has always depended heavily on volunteers to plan and carry out its programmes, which now also involve running a support group for people with HIV or AIDS and a street outreach programme and drop-in centre providing AIDS information, basic medical care, temporary shelter and food for sex workers, injecting drug users and transsexuals. The centre can also provide legal referrals for members of these groups summonsed to appear in court. For the general public, talks, workshops and poster and photo exhibitions are held in schools, hospitals, factories, youth and corporate organisations and other NGOs. Pink Triangle trains its volunteers, too, to provide counselling and information about AIDS and sexuality to anyone who calls up on a confidential telephone line.

The work is serious and vital, but the atmosphere is far from gloomy in Pink Triangle's premises in a lively part of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. Though funding comes from several sources at home and abroad, including the European Union, the organisation still has to generate a lot of its own money, and one successful method they have used is to put on imaginative events where fund-raising can be combined with an opportunity to raise public awareness. Last December, for example, they marked the week surrounding World AIDS Day with a string of shows, dance parties, talk-ins and street activities called Pinkfest '95. In venues all over the town, and on television and radio, well-known personalities joined a hundred of Pink Triangle's own speakers and performers to provide education without moralising. The aim was to personalise the issue of AIDS by showing how anyone could be at risk, but at the same time dealing in facts, not fear. Thousands of attractively designed and very frank leaflets and posters put across the virus-busting message in catchy graphics and pithy phrases in several languages.

I happened to be in Kuala Lumpur around New Year and saw a video of some of the Pinkfest highlights which set me thinking how admirable an impression of solidarity and self-help the anti-AIDS struggle in Malaysia conveys, and to wondering whether, back in Brussels, it might not be possible for us in Europe to do something to help. It particularly impressed and touched me that while Pink Triangle delivers its message to every single member of Malaysian society, it makes quite clear, even by its name, that it has a special care for some of that society's most downtrodden members, people for whom no one else had ever ventured to speak. Public silence, opprobrium and ridicule make it especially hard to get the safe-sex message through to gay men, especially the young, to transsexuals and sex workers, and as long as there is no cure the only way of containing the spread of infection is by education- and by changing social attitudes. The many women whose husbands or partners are careless about infection also stand to benefit from greater openness and more factual information. But organising all this takes money.

It happens that among the multinational English-speaking expatriate community in Brussels there is a thriving amateur theatre scene-in fact they say that if two British people found themselves on an otherwise deserted island, one would immediately put on a play for the other, and the same seems to hold true of the Irish and the North Americans. However, it was less certain that anyone apart from me would want to exert themselves, for the many weeks required to stage a production, on behalf of an AIDS charity in a remote Asian country, so l decided to go ahead by myself and perform a one-man comedy. The play was Brief Lives; it has nothing whatever to do with AIDS, but in its day it was a huge success in London and New York. Adapted in the 1960s by the British actor Patrick Garland from the dusty old memoirs of a real historical figure, John Aubrey, it depicts a day in the life of this 1 7th-century English scientist, historian and wit. As he potters about, an extremely old man, in a garret full of manuscripts and curios, he reminisces about his contemporaries in hilarious and touching vignettes, the potted biographies which give the play its name. Aubrey died in penury, but the picture he gives of a vanished age is now reckoned to be the equal of the record we find in the diary of the better-known Samuel Pepys.

It is also a great deal funnier, and when I showed the script to various friends I was astounded and moved to discover how many of them wanted to be involved in the project. Eventually we put together a team headed by the director, Anne Wilkinson, a music impresario married to a coal expert from the European Commission, with production, design, stage management, lighting, sound effects, costume, music and offstage voices-not to mention publicity and box office-provided by other friends from the European institutions or the private sector. The five performances were given in June in a small theatre just adapted from a pottery workshop, and altogether the Brussels showing made a profit of some 110 000 Belgian francs.

We had expected just to send this donation to Pink Triangle through the post, but to our immense pleasure they said they would like to see not just the money but, if possible, the play too. By ingenious compression the designer, Burt Baum, managed to cut the essentials of the set down to three sheets painted to give a three-dimensional effect, we put the voices and music on cassette, rolled up the costume tightly and worked out that the whole play, thus reduced, could be got into one suitcase. There is a little theatre company in the Pacific ACP state of Vanuatu called Wan Smol (One Small) Bag which actually gave me this idea. So off I went to Kuala Lumpur with this bag, and did the play another five times there.

The staging in Malaysia was done by an adventurous outfit called Instant Cafe Theatre. This young company has a reputation for pushing forward the boundaries of public discussion with topical plays and supports Pink Triangle's aims and work. Brief Lives was well outside their usual repertoire, as well as being spoken in the English of 300 years ago. My worry was that bringing such a Western and Eurocentric entertainment might be resented as cultural imperialism in a country with three great and fascinating cultures of its own, Malay, Chinese and Indian, each with its own style of drama. But it turned out there was a local tradition of amateur dramatics in English, particularly Shakespeare, and that English is the usual lingua franca for speakers of different Asian languages. What went down unexpectedly well was the depiction of an old man nearing death and reviewing the best moments of his life; as the character puts it in the play, 'When a boy, I did always love to converse with old men, as living histories,' and Maiaysians have a particular regard and affection for the elderly.

I came away from Kuala Lumpur with many charming memories: the unfailing, sweet-natured enthusiasm of the audience; the relief on the first night as I stood on stage in a floor-length costume of three layers, designed to suggest London in midwinter rather than to cope with the equatorial heat of the Malay peninsula, and realised that the stage was air conditioned. The night when this air conditioning blew out a vital candle on the stage, and a man in the front row lent me his highly un-17th-century lighter to get my clay pipe going. The Chinese friend who gave me a genuine antique opium pipe to add to John Aubrey's collection of exotic curios. The delicious succession of Asian chicken dishes which the stage manager produced for me to eat on stage, cooked in very un-English coconut milk or glazed with rice wine. The work permit which specified I could perform as an artiste but must not 'sit out' or dance with the audience! The theatre's resident singer asking if she could add the play's Elizabethan theme song, with lute accompaniment, to her repertoire.

Taking this play to another continent was a fascinating cultural experience for me as a European, and I hope for the audiences too it was something more than just a painless way of being relieved of money in a deserving cause. At any rate the theatre asked if they could have another play soon, one in which Malaysian actors could be incorporated as well. As for Pink Triangle, some of its leading lights were packing their bags to go to Vancouver for this year's International AIDS Conference, but before they left it was a pleasure to hand over the proceeds of the whole venture and to hear that the organisation will use the money to develop a drop-in centre for people approaching them in person for the first time. Some first-timers are understandably timid about coming to the unfamiliar (and clearly signposted) premises for help or information, and a private space where they can talk in confidence is something Pink Triangle has always wanted to provide but could never find the funds for, as the project or programme money they get from their regular donors is invariably tied to what outsiders might think were more urgent priorities. It is not only the headline grabbing schemes which have useful effects: a quietly welcoming space where someone can be himself or herself may do more to dispel an individual's fear and ignorance than publicly visible campaigning, especially where religious and social pressures against certain types of nonconformity are strong. In fighting HIV/AIDS, we must try whatever works. And empowerment must begin with the self. It was a great privilege to be welcomed in like any other volunteer wanting to help bring about a necessary change.