a shoeless girl and a new yorker run against aids

KISUMU, Kenya Richard Brodsky isn’t so much running toward me as maintaining forward movement. His back is rigid and his arms point straight…

KISUMU, Kenya

Richard Brodsky isn’t so much running toward me as maintaining forward movement.

His back is rigid and his arms point straight down; his steps on the dirt road are short and delicate, as if he’s tip-toeing out of a lion’s den.

“I’m going slow but I’ll make it,” he says, after 10 of 42-kilometres.

Three Kenyan girls run beside the New Yorker, who looks and acts like Woody Allen. One is wearing dress shoes; another carries pink sandals in her hands and one has no shoes at all.

This is the Kisumu World AIDS Marathon, a race that Brodsky co-founded in 2004.

He was diagnosed with HIV in 1997. Three years ago, he had a brain tumour removed.

But still, he runs marathons, as well as the Richard M. Brodsky Foundation, which raises money for research.

At 55, he also remains married to his wife, Jodi Brodsky, who hasn’t been infected.

His once impossible story is locked in step with the emerging global AIDS revolution.

Today, HIV-positive people can live almost regular lives if they have access to anti-retroviral medication.

And AIDS itself is looking less like a plague and more like a manageable disease.

Newly revised data from the United Nations shows the world’s yearly number of new infections peaked in the late 1990s and is dropping. As Donald G. McNeil Jr. writes in the International Herald Tribune, “The disease is at last giving notice that it will behave like other pestilences.”

But while desperation over our generation’s worst four-letter acronym fades, it’s being replaced with a more familiar disease in many developing countries where AIDS has left millions of orphans.

Politics.

The road to Kisumu was paved with asphalt in the 1950s, during colonial times, and left to decay into potholes.

What was once a four-hour trip to Nairobi now takes nine hours.

In the city’s harbour on Lake Victoria sits a green garden where last month there was water.

The dreaded hyacinth is back, choking some fishermen from their livelihoods. The government used to send machines in to chop it up, but this is an election year and Kisumu is opposition friendly.

Locals call these “political problems.”

The term seems to fit for a country offering free anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive people but often clustering the distribution centres near cities, while nearly 70 per cent of Kenyans survive as rural farmers.

Consider Kisumu.

“You’re not in the city, it can take you a day to travel (to get the medicine) and it can cost you $8 to $10, says Richard. “They can’t afford it. You have to get the AIDS medicine to AIDS sufferers.”

That’s why he first came to Western Kenya in 2004 to start an AIDS Day marathon.

He heard the area was suffering from distribution problems and came to make a difference.

Still, while many running the race with him were also HIV-positive, enemies such as taboos and ignorance lurk.

Richard appears to be winning some battles, but losing others.

Three years ago, 31-year-old Hamud Boy says he was dying. He felt sick and didn’t know why until his sister convinced him to get tested, where he discovered he had HIV.

He began taking anti-retroviral medication, which drastically improved his health.

At last year’s race, Boy ran the half-marathon and then publicly revealed he’s living with HIV.

After that, some shunned him but others have been inspired by his story to get tested, he says.

“If getting tested can make me live, then let me live.”

But poverty — also often a political problem here — is behind continued dangerous sexual behaviour despite the understood threat of HIV and AIDS.

Rosemary Achin, 24, came to Kisumu from a far off village three years ago, finding a place to live with several prostitutes.

She quickly became one herself, making up to $7 per day, she says.

Last year, Achin discovered she’s HIV-positive.

She estimates she is one of hundreds of sex workers in Kisumu, and says the majority has HIV but continue working.

I ask if she worries about transmitting the disease to her customers? “No, we are using condoms,” she says, through a translator.

“You must survive, keep on going. The most important thing is that you know your status.”

Perhaps, but it’s also important both parties involved in protected sex know each other’s status, too.

Which brings us to 53-year-old Jodi.

She does know her husband’s status is positive, but has chosen to stay with him and remains free of the disease.

“He was my best friend; we were married 18 years and I guess I felt sorry for him,” she says of her decision, which forced her to overcome many of the same taboos people face in Kenya.

“It was a choice. It’s a family member of yours. Do you just walk away from that? It wasn’t even a thought in my mind.”

Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.

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