World AIDS Day in Jamaica: lighting a candle after 30 years

As I wait for the virtual Annual Candlelight Vigil to emerge from Zoom-land, I indulge in some memories. If I was to use that well worn cliché, I would call them “bittersweet.” For several years during the 1990s, I attended these vigils on the front lawn of what was then the headquarters of Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL). These were emotional occasions. As the names of those who had died from AIDS during the year were read out, there were tears – sometimes loudly expressed, at other times soft and quiet. They were very personal moments for many. And the list in those days was quite unbearably long.

The old house that was JASL’s office was knocked down some years ago. It has been replaced by one of the cold, characterless apartment blocks that are going up all over the jaded, overcrowded, and over-trafficked neighborhood just north of New Kingston. The old house had seen better days, but it had a homely air, with what was once a family’s living room, with shiny wooden floors, used as a gathering place.

In fact, JASL was, and still remains, family – as one 22 year-old living with HIV pointed out. Always a welcome, and a comfort.

Remembering Leonard…

Over time, the list of names started to get shorter. The AIDS quilt was already well populated enough with sad squares and rectangles and hexagons, hearts and stars. The JASL staff, whom I regard as heroes, worked tirelessly – but always, somehow, had a warm smile (and a very tight hug from Ian McKnight, JASL’s amazing co-founder!) They still work, and work, and remain focused and quietly upbeat. Meanwhile, as Executive Director Kandasi Levermore pointed out, their two major international donor partners – USAID and the Global Fund – continue to provide almost all of their funding (95 percent). However, moving towards sustainability, tomorrow JASL will open their first pharmacy: a business venture that will also provide a “one stop shop” for their hundreds of clients.

I could write much more. There have been numerous media discussions today. But really, all I want to say is…

Happy 30th Anniversary to JASL. I love you.

The only surviving co-founder of JASL, Ian McKnight, feeling emotional at this evening’s Vigil; and Ian “then.” Thanks for the love!

We are still having epidemics, these days. There is COVID-19 – and there are social epidemics – I am thinking specifically of violence, in these 16 Days of Activism following the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. There is much to reflect on. But then, World AIDS Day has always been that way for me.

Please take care in these difficult times, and let’s put JASL’s slogan into practice (it’s needed more than ever)…

Love, Action and Support

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