Bashir Osman – Striving to Get the Message out about HIV/AIDS

February 1, 2008
It’s not often that attending a training workshop can change your life. But this is what happened to Ethiopian journalist Bashir Osman. Sonya De Masi writes from Addis Ababa.

It’s one thing to believe you have a position on HIV/AIDS but it’s quite another to actually meet someone living with the virus. So many journalists in Ethiopia report regularly on the epidemic and its consequences that it’s surprising how many do so without ever meeting a person living with HIV (PLHIV). This is the story of a conversion, of a journalist who came to Internews with firm opinions about people with HIV but who went away a changed man.

Bashir Osman is a Somaligna-speaking journalist from Dire Dawa in the country’s east. It’s an administrative region and a centre of the Somali community in Ethiopia.  He works for Dire 106.1 FM which broadcasts a mix of news, current affairs, social issues and entertainment. He came to Internews in Addis Ababa to join seven other regional journalists for a week-long workshop focusing on the prevention of mother-to-child-transmission of HIV.

According to the most recent Ethiopian government figures Dire Dawa has the third highest urban HIV prevalence rate in the country and almost double the national average.  In a population of close to 400,000 more than 12,000 people are living with HIV in the region. Each year almost 1000 positive women test HIV-positive and at least 230 babies are born with the virus.  So it was surprising that Bashir Osman, who has worked for his radio station for almost three years, had never produced a feature story about HIV/AIDS.

It is still a relative novelty to hear on Ethiopian radio a feature story; that is a report that includes sound clips from 2/3 interviewees (including a human interest story), natural sound and is backed by a creative script and some stringent research.  Bashir had also never met anyone that he was aware was living with HIV.  So he had never interviewed a person with HIV, never considered the issue from the perspective of someone with the virus and never investigated the HIV infection rates in his region. He told Internews that in Dire Dawa it is very difficult to find a positive person to interview and as a result, he and his colleagues believed that there was a low rate of infection in their region. AIDS was not considered a priority and any stories on the issue would take a national approach, contain only statistics and would never focus on the community or regional level.

During a workshop session which discussed appropriate language and approaches to interviewing People Living with HIV, Bashir was adamant. He would never, ever have an HIV test because he ‘knew’ he didn’t have HIV. He feared HIV-positive people and ‘didn’t trust them’; he did not want to be in the same room because he didn’t want to risk breathing the same air. He would never consider sharing a plate or hosting a positive person in his home. And then on the third day of the workshop Bashir met Meskerem.

Meskerem is a beautiful and vivacious young woman, who has clear eyes, glossy hair and luminous skin. She works as a peer educator for HIV-positive pregnant women and mothers with the INGO Intrahealth at a mother-and-child clinic in Addis Ababa. With strength and honesty Meskerem described to the group her experiences; how she discovered she was HIV-positive when receiving pre-natal care, how she and her husband handled the issue and her treatment, which resulted in the birth of a healthy, HIV-negative daughter. For many present, including Bashir, it was the first time to meet and interact with a person with HIV.

And thus began the conversion of Bashir Osman. Interviews were recorded with Meskerem and at the clinic where she works, with other HIV-positive mothers and the counselors who offer support and guidance during pregnancy. Experts  explained the medical detail of Prevention-of-mother-to-child treatment (PMTCT), the drugs available, the treatment programme and recommendations to prevent transmission during breastfeeding. Journalists were taught how to weave the different voices and information into a script, and how to edit their audio with digital equipment.

By the conclusion of the workshop Bashir had produced his first radio feature. He focused on breastfeeding and PMTCT, saying his community needed to know about the risks of HIV transmission through breastfeeding and recommended practices because of the cultural tradition of extended breastfeeding. 

“My feature addresses the needs and concerns of ordinary - otherwise voiceless – people in my region,” he said. “Those people don’t know about PMTCT and services. I believe I am the right person to give them the right information.”

In the final workshop days Bashir could be seen sporting the red AIDS ribbon on his breast. By the final day he had also acquired a badge of the same symbol and he declared he would wear it every day as a sign of his commitment to helping raise awareness and improve knowledge about HIV and AIDS in his community.

Bashir wrote in his post-evaluation form that “The training helped me not only change my production style but also my attitude towards the pandemic...This training has enlightened me…and helped me know how to approach, communicate with and interview people with HIV. 

“You can’t get infected with HIV by hugging or touching someone. Also not by sharing the same plate. And people with HIV are not dirty. From now on, I will be wearing an AIDS ribbon every day. And I will tell the stories of people with HIV, so that my community can also learn to accept them as normal human beings.”

Bashir told Internews that he thought change was essential. And his desire for change was directed not only at his community, their knowledge and attitudes, but also in his own family life. He expressed concern that he did not know his status, and he was worried about that because he and his wife had a young child who was still breast-feeding. Before returning home he telephoned his wife from the Internews office and urged her to have an HIV test, explaining his feeling of urgency and his concerns for her and their baby. 

After returning to Dire Dawa, Bashir broadcast the first of his two features produced as a result of the Internews workshop. The feedback has been exceptionally positive. He said one listener told him this was the first programme he had heard on the local media of an international standard, and that in the past stories like his PMTCT feature were only heard on international broadcasters. A woman listener told Bashir, “We have never heard this kind of programme before,” and told him only if his station continued to broadcast such stories would she  continue to listen, describing the usual fare as “boring.”

Two months after the workshop Bashir says he feels encouraged. Despite the challenges he and his colleagues face in identifying people to interview, accessing technical information and finding the time to produce stories in the new way he has learned, Bashir Osman says he is committed to keep going.