Niger, West Africa. A tiny village off a slow, dusty road. Naked kids run around in play. Men laze under trees. Women pound millet in their huge mortars. A band of Americans, clad in red shirts and strapped to shiny mountain bikes (or the foreigner's horse, as they're known in the bush) file off the road and out of the sweltering heat. They are expected, but the village people are still shocked.
Greetings and blessings and a gradual segregation by gender, until the female riders find themselves hunched in a circle with thirty women from the village. The riders proffer a question, "What is AIDS?"
After meeting blank stares and mute mouths, they push further: "Is AIDS a type of food? An article of clothing? What is AIDS?"
The women have no idea. No idea that AIDS is a disease that has infected more than 2% of the 12 million people in Niger, though due to lack of knowledge and access to testing its true prevalence remains unknown. Of the total 36 million people in the world living with HIV/AIDS in the world today, 25.3 million of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the United States, we have gained a foothold in combating this disease, and although the fight is far from over, Americans have made a kind of headway that is difficult to imagine for a population that has no television, no radio, few schools, and a literacy rate of less than 10%. In the past, the AIDS ride has reached an audience of up to 25,000 people in a single week- a staggering number.
Each year, volunteers riders take part in the annual Niger AIDS Ride, biking roughly 250 km to promote AIDS awareness. In late October, forty volunteers ride about 40 km a day to educate men, women, and children about the disease's mode of transmission and different methods of prevention. The riders end each day in a roadside village, where they participate in a 3-hour video presentation and discussion.
This project is a product of the dedication and hard work of many people, both American and Nigerien. The volunteers are willing to eat simply, to go without latrines, and to sleep on the hard ground because they are excited to ride over a hundred miles through desert land to spread the message about HIV/AIDS.