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Ants Can Kill the Elephant

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Mannasseh Phiri
Thursday, January 31, 2013

The following is excerpted from a longer piece by Mannasseh Phiri originally appearing in Zambia’s Sunday Post. Phiri is a long-time HIV prevention practitioner and advocate.

If you have ever heard me make a presentation on HIV and AIDS in Zambia in the last 10 years, you will know that I always start with a picture of a magnificent specimen of a bull elephant standing in its majesty on the banks of the mighty Zambezi. As I show the picture I tell the story of how the African elephant in many ways behaves like HIV—quietly consuming a huge amount of resources.

I was thinking about how I seriously need to rehash, freshen or renew my own presentations’ opening story about the similarity the African elephant to the virus HIV [when I was reminded of] a piece of African wisdom that I hadn’t heard since I was child. “When ants are well organised, they can kill an elephant”. HIV/AIDS is a giant elephant and if we the people organise ourselves well, like ants, we can conquer HIV!

I was recently holed up in hotel in Johannesburg with other 'ants'—feeding off each other’s energy, enthusiasm, sense of purpose, conviction and determination that the end for this elephant is possible and can be achieved. For this meeting [the AVAC Partners' Forum] the ants came from Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe—all of them researchers, advocates and activists—with the combined power to make a whole herd of elephants scamper in fear.

It was not just the energy and enthusiasm of the "ants" that floored me. Their technical knowledge and understanding of the detailed intricacies and nuances of the research work they are doing made me ashamed of coming from Zambia. While cutting edge research in HIV prevention with oral antiretrovirals, vaginal and rectal gels, and vaginal rings is going on and advancing HIV science in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa, Zambia is dithering with approvals because of suspicion.

I feel like the day is not far when I shall no longer need to always wear the AIDS red ribbon and the Until There's A Cure copper bangle on my left wrist. Thanks to the meeting of the ants, the elephant's days are numbered.