Erik Friedly, former spokesman for the Atlanta Opera and the Fulton County district attorney, has taken his communications skills as far from home as possible: to Africa. He moved to Uganda in January 2012 as a health communications specialist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the fight against AIDS. He’s also openly gay and married to a man from Kenya, in a country known around the globe for its homophobia. The images above are from his social media accounts.
1. Where are we in the story of HIV in Africa?
The HIV epidemic in Africa is still real and still a terrible burden. But programs like PEPFAR (the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, for which I am privileged to work) have made a huge difference. AIDS was once a death sentence for millions here — simple as that. We have turned that tide. There remains much to be done in terms of expanding treatment access and in preventing new infections across this continent, but there is real hope that we could one day see the end of AIDS here.
Almost anyone you speak to in Uganda over a certain age can tell you about someone they lost to AIDS — family or friends or teachers or neighbors. AIDS has been a shared nightmare here, which is a bit different than it has been in other parts of the world.
2. How comfortable are you as a gay man there? What about for your husband?
Erik Friedly with Festus in San Francisco for their wedding last fall.
Uganda prides itself on being a conservative, “traditional” society, yes. Homosexuality is not widely accepted here. But my position is probably not a good barometer, since I am a white man, an American and a diplomat. I do sometimes feel uncomfortable, of course, and one cannot be truly open. But for the most part, on a day-to-day basis, there really are no significant issues.
My husband is Kenyan and so lives with very different family and cultural pressures than I do. But he is remarkably comfortable in his own skin and with his own life, and I think he would agree with my characterization of our life here.
3. It’s a long way from Atlanta to Kampala. Tell me how you got there.
CDC fact box. Click to enlarge.
When I first came to CDC in 2006, I joined the communication team within the office of the director. From there, I moved into CDC’s tobacco control office, but then made the jump to CDC’s Division of Global HIV/AIDS. In July 2011, I accepted this assignment to CDC’s Uganda office and deployed here in January 2012. I have at least one more year here.
4. What’s the job about? What kind of communications are you doing?
The job is an interesting hybrid of public affairs, health diplomacy and health communication. Part of CDC’s work in global HIV is, of course, to encourage and promote risk-reduction behaviors among targeted populations — things like condom use, male circumcision and so on.
But working in the environment of the U.S. Embassy also requires communicating back to U.S. stakeholders about the tremendous investments in health the American people are making, while also promoting that same commitment to the people of Uganda. I can also act as a resource for CDC Headquarters by helping them tell CDC’s global health story better.
5. What’s been the biggest shock, and the biggest joy, of living in Uganda?
I wrote this article at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, when I covered the courts and Erik Friedly was the spokesman for Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard.
Prior to being permanently assigned here, I had worked brief assignments in Cameroon, Mali and Haiti, so I had some limited experience in the developing world. But I suppose the biggest shock here is the fact that so many things simply don’t work. Things like electricity. The ability to provide potable water even in the capital city. The roads, which are more pothole than pavement. There is such an overwhelming lack of the basic infrastructure and capacity to provide a basis for people to make the most of their lives.
The biggest joy (in addition to the amazing weather, the beauty of the landscape, etc.) might be the special way people live their lives. I don’t just mean the poverty or basic cultural differences. I mean the things people are prepared to accept, endure and make the most of. The ability to live a full and happy life without all of the things we come to expect are necessary. There is an abiding acceptance of life, which in turn breeds a quiet and abiding strength. There is a southern African concept of Ubuntu: “I am because you are.” It’s a wonderful concept of shared humanness, and it informs the spirit of sub-Saharan Africa.
Click here to tweet: “I am because you are.” — Southern African concept of Ubuntu
6. What are the big challenges of your communications job there?
Education levels tend to be relatively low, so one must try to keep messages simple and straightforward. This isn’t always easy when communicating complex scientific and health information. Ugandan media can sometimes lack professional acumen and that makes delivering a message difficult. Frank and open and fact-based discussions around sexual behaviors and realities can meet with resistance. This is not unlike the American attitude in the past, but in Uganda, with an HIV prevalence of around 7 percent, the stakes are higher and the need for honest discussion even more critical.
7. What are you reading these days? Print or digital?
I love books and magazines, always have. But day-to-day, digital is just easier. Bookshops here tend to be filled with religious or inspirational or self-help titles and magazines are imported and incredibly expensive. I am fortunate to be able to receive mail through the embassy, so I get magazines like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair with consistency — albeit a bit late.
For more on HIV/AIDS in Uganda, visit the Centers for Disease Control.
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