It’s hard to imagine what sort of pressure a dynamic, articulate activist for an unpopular cause must come under, but Abel Shinana, who died in a road accident earlier this year, knew all about it. Abel was a gay sex worker in Namibia, who very soon after starting to speak out, became one of the country co-ordinators for the Namibian office of the African Sex Worker Alliance.
By the time I met him, Abel was being asked to travel to regional and international meetings on HIV and sex work, to talk about the experiences of sex workers in his country. When he wasn’t being expected to interpret and comment lucidly on the possible sampling errors that bias global modelling on the role sex workers play in HIV epidemiology, or the human rights implications of the WHO’s guidelines on HIV programming with sex workers, he was being asked to run research and training projects with sex workers back in Namibia. In September 2011 (just before he flew off to another international consultation) we trained 17 Namibian sex workers to carry out some qualitative research with sex workers in five towns – a piece of work that got people to recognise, both locally and nationally, that working with sex workers on HIV requires a lot more than distributing free condoms. Abel was a pleasure to work with, but although he did an excellent job, he became somewhat withdrawn over the course of the five day training session. My frustration with him was misplaced: he’d spent most of the week dealing with homophobic abuse and jealousy that he’d been asked to help run the show.
Why was he asked? Because he was talented, passionate, and because we believed it was important to try as hard as possible to encourage leadership of sex workers themselves. Over the next few months, we talked from time to time about his role in Namibia, about how he might focus, either on activism, or programming, in order to give him a bit more space.
Abel’s untimely death – as well as the recent deaths of two of the 17 sex worker researchers we trained – has been a big reminder of the fragility of leadership; and of the weaknesses of the haphazard ways in which external do-gooders, albeit with the best of intentions, tend to gravitate towards, and heap expectations on, the rare talents they find. I’m not sure what the answer is, but World AIDS Day is for remembering. Raise a glass.