If Whitehorse were in Africa, its population of roughly 20,000 would be wiped out in three days, said Robertson Bales.
The Yukon photographer spent two and a half weeks in Zambia in November and returned with some harsh insights.
“AIDS kills 8,000 people in Africa every day,” he said. “And it’s so in your face.
While there, Bales saw lots of children, but noticed a huge demographic void.
“There are not many people between the ages of 16 and 45,” he said. “They are all sick with AIDS, or dead.
“There are 630,000 orphans in Zambia alone and the AIDS prevalence rate is almost 20 per cent.”
AIDS had affected everyone Bales met in Zambia, whether they lost a mother, father, sister, brother or cousin to the disease, he said.
Flying home, he met a Zambian nurse who was returning to London, where she works.
She had been to Zambia for a two-week visit and had attended four funerals for immediate family who’d died of AIDS.
“And it wasn’t planned, it was just by chance,” said Bales.
He travelled to Africa to gather visual footage, and hopes to raise AIDS awareness in the territory and internationally.
“The purpose of the trip was to get hands-on experience on the ground of what the conditions are like,” he said.
He wanted to determine if the main issue in Zambia was AIDS, or water problems, or food security.
It turned out to be all three.
When travelling to rural Zambian communities, Bales saw the effects of a continuing drought in the country, which has, in turn, compromised food supplies.
“No one has food, or very little,” he said.
“And access to health care is very limited.”
In one region there were only two nurses serving over 100,000 people.
“There were already 50 people lined up by nine in the morning and the nurses have no supplies or equipment.”
In another rural community, the only acting nurse was a veterinary assistant, he said.
Having returned with photo documentation of these dire circumstances, Bales plans to engage the public, give talks in schools and educate people about the issues.
“Then the community, being Whitehorse and people from the Yukon, can come up with ways to act, whether it be through supporting projects with funding, or more public awareness and education, or even going (to Africa) and volunteering on various projects,” he said.
Next week Bales and Yukon Development Education Centre members are presenting a one-day symposium on African AIDS awareness, as part of the Harnessing the Wave project.
“The purpose of the project is to raise public awareness and educate on global issues,” said Bales.
Named after the tsunami and the concomitant wave of global compassion that was shown, the Harnessing the Wave project strives to harness that same level of generosity and awareness for issues in Africa, said Bales.
The upcoming symposium will feature a series of presentations by Yukoners who have worked or volunteered in various countries in Africa.
Zambian Norman Chabula will also be at the symposium to talk about Women for Change, an NGO he works for in Africa.
“If you take any African women aside and ask them what the major issues are, they will talk about gender issues as much as they will talk about AIDS,” said Bales.
While in Zambia, he visited one of the communities where Women for Change was at work.
“It was amazing — you knew there was something different about the community,” he said.
“The men were carrying water, cooking and holding the kids, and you don’t see this in any other communities.”
These men told Bales they found the changes difficult, but also admitted the community is a better place as a result.
So, there’s hope, said Bales.
“Maybe this is why (Harnessing the Wave) came about, because most people do think of Africa, but when they hear about it, it all sounds so overwhelming because there are so many issues.
“But there are ways they can directly be involved and make a difference.”
Bales hopes to return to Africa to support Women for Change and to bring some supplies to the struggling rural medical centres he visited in November.
“We are not going to end this project with the symposium,” he said.
“We want to get together as a community and decide our course of action and how to go about it.”
Bales hopes to tour his Zambian photo exhibit after the symposium, to further raise awareness.
Bales first visited Africa in ’82, when he was working as a diamond driller.
“In ’82 AIDS had just appeared and you didn’t see it anywhere,” he said.
“Now, it’s everywhere there.”
After studying photography in Kitchener, Ontario, he took a job as a diamond driller to pay off his student loan.
“It was only supposed to be for the summer,” he said.
But he ended up working in the mining industry for 17 years.
“Finally I couldn’t do it anymore, physically and morally,” he said.
After a year studying journalism, he and his wife Suzanne Picot, worked for a large NGO for five years in Southeast Asia and South America.
“It was a life changing experience,” he said.
“And once you do it, you can’t get away from it — development work is always in the back of my mind.”
Bales is currently trying to raise money to fund further projects in Africa, including sponsorship for students who can’t afford further education.
“It’s important to focus on the little things — if the projects are small, then there are more results,” he said.
The Harnessing the Wave symposium takes place on March 25 at Yukon College.
Register at the Alpine Bakery or e-mail Bales at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 633-6579 for further information.
Adult registration is $10, while students, youth and seniors will be charged $5. This includes an African lunch.
Harnessing the Wave is also holding a documentary film night at the Alpine Bakery on March 21st from 7 to 10 p.m.
Entrance is by donation.