Sizwe’s Test: A Young Man’s Journey Through Africa’s AIDS Epidemic focuses on Sizwe, a handsome and prosperous thirty year old shop keeper in Lusikisiki, South Africa. Through Sizwe, Jonny Steinberg works to answer a major question about AIDS: Why are so many AIDS victims in South Africa refusing to receive treatment and some, like Sizwe, refusing to even get tested? Sizwe’s village contains only 700 residents and therefore, everyone knows what everyone else is doing at all times. There is hardly any privacy and those who get tested by the Doctors without Borders team take the chance of having their illness unveiled in front of the entire village. This is because those who are required to receive extra hour of counseling after testing are confirmed HIV positive cases.
Sizwe struggles with cultural issues which are at first difficult for Steinberg to understand. Steinberg does not comprehend Sizwe’s refusal for getting tested but throughout the book, the reasons become clear. Living with his pregnant lover, Sizwe has had sex throughout his life with numerous partners. Because of his exposure, he strongly suspects he will be HIV positive and is deeply afraid for people to find out as this will affect his reputation negatively. Not only will Sizwe lose his job and prosperous living style, but he will also be a disgrace to his family and not be able to have children to outlive him.
Throughout the book, Sizwe is Steinberg’s interpreter and guide and by talking to victims and doctors like Hermann Reuter, it is ultimately Sizwe who understands more about the epidemic and the decisions he must make, separating himself from his cultural and gender notional of shame and guilt and forcing him to take a step that is in accordance with his personal beliefs. At the end he is able to distinguish between myth and reality.
In A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah narrates his life as a child soldier in Sierra Leone and what it was like growing up around death and drugs. When Beah was in his teens, he was captured during a village raid by the RUF along with his friends and forced to become a child solider. During his time “fighting,” Beah is active in violent acts and high drug use. His escape comes in 1996 when UNICEF workers rescue the children and send them into rehabilitation. At the rehabilitation center, Beah becomes close to Nurse Esther and finds more about the world around him through things like music and lives with his uncle after release. Beah’s life changes when he is given the opportunity to share his experiences with the world at the UN. Because of this opportunity, he is able to travel to America after his uncle’s death and start a new life.
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Despite two different stories and perspectives, there are similarities between the two books. Firstly, both explore lives of Africans facing hardships daily and fighting against many physical and cultural forces to escape the negative aspects of society. Secondly, both works focus on death and life situations, the war fields, actual weapons, drugs, and AIDS. There is a constant danger of being robbed, killed, or lost in the race to survival, whether it is in an actual war or tensions building over time among community members, like gang members in Sizwe’s Test. Thirdly, despite the negativity, there is a strong message of hope in both works, as the characters overcome many obstacles and still survive, ultimately becoming stronger individuals then they started off with.
Sizwe and Ishmael are the main characters trying to overcome their respective obstacles: for Sizwe, he must fight his sense of male shame and cultural hurdles in order to heal physically in the midst of AIDS and must survive emotionally after losing loved ones and develop a whole new perspective on life. As for Ishmael, he has to escape the physical boundaries which trapped him in dangerous warfare and also heal mental scars which forced him into a horrid and hurried adulthood. These two characters might be facing two entirely different dilemmas but if they met, they would relate perfectly to each other’s lives and help each other heal through common solutions such as love, hope, humanity and a shared culture.