I have recently been thinking a lot about how we don’t really talk about HIV and AIDS that much anymore. As a kid born in the late 70’s I remember the dark days of the 80’s when people were dying in numbers from the disease and we assumed it would become a Black Death type plague, the early 90’s when our beloved Freddie Mercury died, his illness a secret until his death. And then the ARV medication cocktails started to work, and people stopped dying... The billboards disappeared and we started to worry more about HPV-related cancers, Ebola, Zika, and the re-emergence of certain vaccine-preventable viruses like measles.
Remember when reports told us that AIDS would wipe out Africa? Was it all scaremongering, or was it really on the brink of a continent wide pandemic? I certainly never really took too much time to do more than some topical research on the subject, just assumed that we had managed to solve the crisis with the drugs that had become the norm in the US. As I have been digging a little deeper into the subject recently, One Life At A Time by Daniel Baxter popped on my radar, and I feel it provides a very enlightening narrative into a small part of Africa and the AIDS epidemic, through Baxter’s personal experience in Botswana.
Baxter worked as an AIDS doctor in NYC during the worst US era of the illness, the 80’s, and left for Botswana on a slight whim in 2002, excited to bring his expertise and care to the Batswana, where at the time a big portion of the population was assumed to be infected with the virus (24%). Through his two stays in Botswana (6 years and then 2 years with a 4 year hiatus between) Baxter recounts how he arrived in Botswana assuming certain things and instead learnt many lessons, some heartbreaking, some embarrassing, and some just really important along the way.
Africa is a continent, a huge continent, comprised of many countries, and this memoir only describes the AIDS situation in Botswana from the early 2000’s onwards, so while other countries similar in population and government might have had the same processes in place I think it’s important to have a distinct view of all, just as we would when talking about different European countries. More importantly we should draw a comparison with other countries where the attitudes towards prevention and care have been different, or were different at the time (South Africa for example), to see how important the collaboration between the Botswana government, population and outside agencies was/is.
There are times during his first stay in Botswana (6 years) when I felt that the narrative gets a little jumbled up, Baxter’s memories and facts all colliding together, and I found it hard to fasten myself to a timeline or even a character or edifice that I would reencounter again down the road. This isn’t a bad thing, just that sometimes the stories were combined in a way that makes it a little hard to get through, because you have to go back a few lines or pages and read them over again. The second part of the book, when Baxter goes back to Botswana for another stint after 4 years in NYC, is less haphazard, written with more focus, and a lot easier to follow in general.
All in all I thought One Life At A Time was a great story of how an American doctor lands in a country he does not know at all, and learns so much more than he ever imagined he would. While Baxter brings his expertise to help the people of Botswana combat the epidemic of AIDS in the country, he receives so much more in return, including a lot of humility and a much wider view of the world. I feel like I learned so much more about Botswana than I ever knew before, and am now interested in learning much, much more. Last of all, I think it’s very important to mention that Baxter never portrays himself as a savior - he just continued to do the work he had been doing in the 80’s and 90’s in NYC in Botswana, and is very vocal about how much he learned about himself when he was there. One Life At A Time is a brilliant insight into the AIDS epidemic in general, how hard work and collaboration (we can include Dubya -in this part too - PEPFAR helped make a huge difference in how HIV positive patients in Africa received care), can turn despair into hope. I’m looking forward to reading Baxter’s other books now too.
One Life At A Time will be published on June 12, 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance copy!