AIDS activist tailors prevention message to African emigres

As a teenager in Africa, Carine Siltz watched helplessly as AIDS ravaged her father's bedridden body, turning him into a virtual skeleton and causing painful skin rashes and hair loss in the year it took him to die.

For the next eight years, she lived in fear the disease would next claim her mother and was traumatized when that nightmare came true. Before she turned 22, both parents were dead, struck down by the HIV virus that was all too common in her home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Instead of giving up hope, Siltz turned this bitter experience into a life's calling. She founded African Advocates Against AIDS (AAAA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading the message of HIV prevention.

"I saw with my own eyes how the virus devastated the human body," Siltz, 34, said. "It motivated me to let people know the facts to prevent it."

But there's a unique twist to Siltz's approach — she tailors her presentation of the health risks related to AIDS to the cultural traditions and rituals she learned in Africa.

For example, the tradition of tattooing designs on a woman's face to enhance her beauty and honoring the dead by shaving the heads of the living with the same razor aren't viewed as health risks by some African tribes and ethnic groups that hold them dear.

But Siltz uses these traditions to show how sharing razors and needles can be fatal, and does so without passing judgment on the tradition or ritual.

"We give the facts through a culturally appropriate approach, because HIV doesn't discriminate," Siltz said. "We don't want them to stop their traditions. Just take more precautions, including not sharing tools with many people."

Amie Drammeh supports Siltz's mission. She talks to clients about HIV prevention while styling their hair at African Nubian Queen salon in Raleigh.

"It's not just about sex," said Drammeh, who has seen the ravages of AIDS while working as a volunteer for the Red Cross in Gambia. "They use the same blade or scissors or sewing needle on different people."