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November, 2006

Spirit of the Revolution:
Author of new AIDS book says, ‘We're all part of this earth and the health of one person affects the health of us all'

BY LEW ROSENBAUM
 
book cover
Cover of "The After Death Room"
 

When AIDS first entered Peace Corps volunteer Michael McColly's awareness in 1981, he was listening to his short-wave radio in a remote Senegalese village. McColly's account of his subsequent 25-year journey into the world of HIV+, The After Death Room, has just been published. "I wanted to … just go, observe and ask questions and let people tell their stories," he says. It also unfolded into a journal of self-discovery. After returning to Chicago, he traveled to South Africa, Thailand, India and Vietnam, returning 20 years later to the village where it all began in Senegal.

"Where the book really begins," McColly says with the passion of someone who accepts a calling, "is in Durban, at the AIDS conference in June, 2000." McColly was invited to the conference because teaching and practicing Yoga had helped him deal with his own HIV status. People asked him to stay, to help, to teach and demonstrate. "Suddenly I realized, you are here, in front of real people with real needs. They asked me to stay, but I was not prepared to stay, and that troubled me. I had given hope to people who had been given lots of hope by so many people, and I felt it was cruel not to stay and help."

McColly found an incongruity in the makeup of the AIDS conference. His book notes the development of an AIDS bureaucracy and industry. "Those people who talk and get to go to conferences almost perpetuate themselves," he tells me. "The AIDS conference in Toronto in August 2006 was full of those people in power who can talk. The people below don't have time, they don't have the money, they don't even want to leave India for two weeks."

Talking about the cause of the AIDS epidemic, McColly tells me, "I guess anthropologically or scientifically I tend to believe the accepted idea that AIDS probably comes from a monkey." But more important is the relationship of drugs and public health to a disease dependent on poverty, shame and cultural conditioning about sexuality for its continued transmission. "It's amazing … how little governments want to spend on public health. There's not a recognition that it's a collective problem, it's always blamed on 'these people' or it's a technical issue the scientific community will solve…we still don't have national health insurance, which is a public health response. Can't we do something structurally so we can have better education, better treatment, better prevention?"
 
Michael McColly
Michael McColly
 

McColly's voice rises. "I feel very angry about [drug companies]." Everybody shares in the responsibility and every decision is an ethical decision. [Drug manufacturers] should not hide behind market forces and rhetoric. We all are a part of this earth and the health of one person affects the health of us all. Pandemics teach that lesson very well. Health means security, food, clean water and air, medicine."

In an interview for "Peace Corps Writers," McColly said: "To witness the cruelty and the despair of people who are banished from their families was painful. But the most difficult of all was to face people whose lives are in jeopardy because they don't have the drugs and treatment I have access to. This will stay with me for the rest of my life. "

McColly says that AIDS activism is political, and will grow as that movement grows. He says, "Everything is revolutionary when you get deeply connected to recognizing change and the importance of educating people…the real value of life is having commitment. Deep commitment is revolutionary."

Michael McColly's next step? Take the message of this book on the road. Contact Speakers for a New America to arrange to have him speak in your area. Visit http://mccolly.ecorp.net to check on speaking engagements nearby. McColly will appear November 28, at the Chicago Cultural Center, under the auspices of the Guild Complex, the Ragdale Foundation and Center on Halsted, free of charge.

The After Death Room, Soft Skull Press, ISBN: 1-932360-92-1 $16.95) is in bookstores, or can be ordered on-line.


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