HIV & AIDS in Jamaica: Kwame Dawes tackles the taboo

HIV and Aids are touchy subjects in Jamaica, but Kwame Dawes has braved them in poetry and prose. David Katz explored this multimedia project

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  • Kwame Dawes. Photograph courtesy Peepal Tree Press/Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Since the early 1980s, Kwame Dawes has explored contemporary Jamaican culture through poetry, plays, novels, and academic work, looking at the country’s position within the African diaspora and the influence of reggae on the world at large. Although he’s been based in South Carolina since 1992, he was born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica, where most of his extended family still lives, and where he retains strong professional ties, programming the Calabash literary festival each year. His experiences of migration and residence in different parts of the developed and developing worlds have influenced the perspective he takes in his work, much of which is deeply personal.

Dawes is as unafraid to tackle difficult topics as he is to straddle different literary genres. His latest book, Hope’s Hospice and other Poems, explores one of the country’s most taboo subjects: the realities of living with HIV and Aids. These moving poems, illustrated by the photography of Joshua Cogan, were inspired by a bigger project called “Hope: Living and Loving with Aids in Jamaica”, which Dawes spearheaded.

“In the fall of 2007, I was approached by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to write a piece for the Virginia Quarterly Review on HIV/Aids in Jamaica,” he says during an early-morning call. “Their mandate is to report on compelling news stories that have not been well covered for American audiences, and they had done some work on HIV/Aids in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and wanted to expand it to Jamaica.

“My initial reaction was, I’m not really a traditional journalist, but they insisted that they wanted my perspective as a writer. I had written about HIV/Aids as early as 1989, when I wrote a series of short plays in Canada (one of which, Stump of the Terebinth, was performed in Trinidad and Jamaica), and I’ve written some poems about the subject, but hadn’t really done the kind of in-depth study this required. So after some thought, I agreed to do it, knowing that I would have a tremendous amount of research to do.”

Dawes spent a month investigating the facts of Aids in Jamaica, and then, over a four-month period, made several trips there to do a series of in-depth interviews with healthcare professionals and the staff of voluntary organisations, as well as HIV-positive people and other members of the general public.

Dawes explains the process. “I knew people at the Ministry of Health, and I knew some people who were living with the disease, so I started to call around. Then I just simply began to interview people, eventually interviewing several dozen, and there were multiple angles that I explored in the initial writing, because I met so many people, and each of their lives was very compelling to me. The folks in Jamaica really trusted me and opened themselves up in a way that meant a great deal, so I was very protective of them, very protective of the way that we approached the journalistic exercise so that it wasn’t exploitative.”

Although Dawes’ original assignment was the Virginia Quarterly Review report, Pulitzer Center staff proposed early on that a website should be created to make the work more accessible, and were also open to the idea that Dawes write poetry related to the project. The resultant book of poetry, and the beautifully presented interactive website provide other ways of exploring the project and its highly emotive subject matter.

“What I really appreciated about the Pulitzer Center folks was that they let me lead the direction that the website was going to take, as well as all the work that we were doing. And at some point, our conversations led to the question, ‘Can you write any poetry on this?’ And I knew I was going to be writing poetry, because I tend not to not write poetry when I’m dealing with any kind of situation, as poetry, for me, is more a way of processing and working through experiences, and these stories were so moving and compelling that I was writing poetry as we went along.”

Some of the poems have typical Dawes touches that anchor the work firmly in Jamaica, such as “Altar”, with its lines, “Arnette Gardens where the stink/of a rotting dog in the drying gully/mingles with the sweet comfort/of burning weed and jerking meat/the pepper, the pimento, the molasses,” or “Portmore”, which speaks of “the man with a voice sweet as Delroy/Wilson, with the roots ruggedness/of soul-boy Dennis Brown, who could/dance bandy-legged like Ken Booth”, who hopes that he can “cut a tune/capture a stage, burst like a hero/for that last triumph before the disease/in his blood, the disease that shadows/even the sound of his name, takes him.”

Other poems, such as “Fear”, trace the stigma attached to the disease, while the opening poem, from which the collection takes its name, is dedicated to John Marzouca, a wealthy shopkeeper who ran a hospice in Montego Bay for over ten years, until he died in a fire that destroyed his home in 2008.

“The whole project is dedicated to a man I barely knew,” Dawes reveals. “I only met John once and we had a long time talking with each other. His surname would be known to most Jamaicans, because the Marzoucas are a Palestinian family who own furniture stores in Jamaica, and he worked in the stores for years, but at one point decided to work as a volunteer with Jamaica Aids Support For Life, who used to match a volunteer with somebody local with the disease. That really was life-transforming for John, and that led him to eventually becoming the director of Hope’s Hospice, a place for the indigent to live out their last days.”


The website features several of the poems set against a musical backing by Dawes’ longstanding collaborator, Kevin Simmonds. Last August, Dawes, Simmonds and 14 musicians brought the poems to the stage in a black music festival in Massachusetts, and there are plans for more performances in Jamaica.

The website is also enriched by a series of video interviews with health workers and people living with the virus. For instance, along with testimony from individuals coming to terms with the illness, there is footage of Marzouca recounting his experiences, as well as children’s support worker Rosemarie Stone (who has been HIV-positive for over 20 years). Winsome Keane-Dawes, an officer for HIV prevention in St Catherine, speaks of the difficulties in engaging communities of gay men in Jamaica, owing to homophobic prejudice in the society.

“It’s obviously a challenge for the gay community,” says Kwame Dawes, “because Jamaica is a fairly homophobic place. I’m reluctant to do generalisations, but I think that is a fair generalisation. Consequently, gay people who are HIV-positive tend not to come forward to get tested, because they fear the repercussions of coming out. They are not able to be upfront about their homosexuality, and that stigma pushes them underground, which is the worst thing when it comes to HIV/Aids. But as Mrs Keane-Dawes says, she has been able to reach many of the folks in that community.”

Advances in treatment have meant that being diagnosed HIV-positive is no longer a death sentence for Jamaicans, but, ironically, this has the potentially negative consequence of making the public complacent. A watershed year for HIV/Aids in Jamaica was 2003, says Dawes: that was when antiretroviral drugs became more widely available.

“I remember one of the support offices at Jamaica Aids for Life telling me that, prior to 2003, they were looking at 19 deaths a month, and after that, they were looking at two to three, or sometimes no deaths in a month.

“Now, that is not a small thing, but I think that has had both a positive and negative effect. The positive clearly is that people living with the disease and are able to survive. But HIV/Aids is not like living with diabetes, because it is a sexually transmitted disease, associated with something that is tremendously taboo, even in a society like Jamaica. And at the same time, lifestyles are not changing that much. Men are still promiscuous, or living with multiple partners. Through poverty, in some instances, women are forced into situations where they’re compromising their sex lives and the use of their bodies.

“So you look at Jamaica, and, as many of the doctors said to me, this is like a powder keg about to blow, but still holding together for some reason.”

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