Desiree Edghill: Spreading the word about HIV/AIDS by Matt Falloon
Stabroek News
December 9, 2001

Devoting your time to spreading the word about HIV/AIDS in one of the world's worst affected areas where stigma prevails and vital support and treatment infrastructure are lacking is not an easy task - just ask actress and writer Desiree Edghill.

Since 1992, Edghill has become one of the leading figures in the fight. Establishing 'Artists In Direct Support,' the first NGO in Guyana involved in AIDS awareness programmes, with Margeret Lawrence and the late Andre Sobryan, and recently taking on the role of Chairperson of the National AIDS Committee, she has attempted to provide education through the arts and a shoulder to lean on for potential sufferers and victims across the country.

It was because of the promiscuity associated with the arts and the lack of awareness being provided in Guyana that led to the group's formation.

"At that time the stigma was terrible," she told Stabroek News in an interview last week. "No one was listening."

Their initial production was largely a failure. A version of Godfrey Sealy's One of our sons is missing played out to two rows at the National Cultural Centre (NCC).

"People laughed at the main character [afflicted by the disease]," she said. "They felt he deserved it."

By 1995, things had changed. The World AIDS Day campaign started using a theme. The troupe adopted that, begging artists to perform for free and hit on The Flame and the Ribbon idea.

This annual awareness event at the NCC has now grown in popularity to the extent that Artists in Direct Support are trying to find a bigger venue. No one is laughing anymore.

From performing in front of two rows, the group staged two nights of this year's The Flame and the Ribbon" at the NCC. Passing the venue it looked like a prom, but in fact there was no celebration.

Candles were lit in memory of the victims of the epidemic and ribbons were worn to spread awareness and show support for those living with the disease and those who care for the ill.

"Andre had told me that in the year 2001, all the toy soldiers are going to come tumbling down," Edghill recalled. "I didn't understand what he meant at that time because we were busy trying to get the word out there, but now more people are knowing that they are infected."

Edghill explained that as awareness has risen, people who contracted the disease five years ago are now realising in this year that they are infected.

This year alone (Jan 1 - Sept 1) Guyana has seen another 323 full-blown AIDS cases being confirmed and our rate of infection now stands at 5.5 per cent (ages 15-49). Over one in twenty people in this age range are infected.

"This is not the worst of it," she said. "It's something we can't stop, we can only save those people who are not infected. We are now the second highest in the Caribbean per population and that is fast growing to the highest because more people are coming forward."

If that doesn't make you think, what will?

"So I don't think we have seen the worst of it but I don't think we need to see the worst of it to change our behaviour," she continued, "because by the time you have seen the worst of it you may be infected yourself."

"I have done caregiving to someone who has HIV/AIDS and it has made me a different person," she said, her voice rising. "It has made me more paranoid like I don't want to have sex anymore.

"Is my life worth just enjoying just a little bit of sweetness and then I die and then I don't enjoy all these other nice benefits?" she asked, explaining that having that experience has made her desire to get the message out all the more acute.

"We want to keep the public getting the word all the time," she continued. "There has been some change in attitude but I don't think there has been a huge change.

"Men need to start respecting women again," she said, bemoaning the increasing trend among women to dress up to that perceived temptation. "Temptation is out there."

"We all need to join the fight," she pressed. "We need to change how we view this whole life."

Her recommendations are threefold. If you can't control yourself and abstain, use a condom, and be faithful to one partner.

Edghill's work has not ended with awareness and support; she is pushing for a hostel for HIV/AIDS sufferers which will allow much needed interaction and experience sharing between victims and their loved ones.

"It was Andre's wish to have some place where people can go," she said. "A centre to come and discuss their experiences and meet others like themselves."

They located a disused building at the corner of Thomas and Quamina in Georgetown, an old dentistry school, and despite interest from the then Minister of Health, Minister Henry Jeffrey, the venue is still beyond their reach.

"We have pledges from sawmillers and contractors to help and offer their services," she said. All it needs now is a little help from the Ministry.

In the meantime, Edghill continues her struggle to enlighten an often unforgiving but slowly converting public to the sanctity of life and the need for responsible action. Alongside this draining task, it is characters like Edghill who are holding out a hand of support to victims of a terrible disease, being with them every step of the way. She has already seen a great friend perish and provides 'direct support' to a further six sufferers and their families.

As the statistics show, HIV/AIDS is starting to grip the nation. One person a day is dying from the disease.

"Abstinence is the number one prevention," she said, drumming the point home. "Condoms are not 100 per cent safe."