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Assignment #4

Mohamed Elzarka
Write a ~1,000-word review of the book Saturday is for funerals by Unity Dow & Max Essex.
Include in this review a description of the 3 most interesting chapters (from your perspective), as
well as a list of questions that you would ask the authors related to their research or work with
the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana.
One of the most interesting assignments thus far in this course centered on the HIV/AIDS
epidemic in southern Africa has been reading about the experiences of real people and cultural
shifts that have come as a result of this disease crisis in one of the countries that we will visit at
the end of the term. This is exactly the focus of Saturday is for Funerals, a book about the lives
taken and affected by AIDS. Put together in a rather interesting and very readable manner, the
book pairs short vignettes about experiences with the illness with medical reviews of the issues
that are discussed in each story. In this way, readers are left with a strong understanding of both
the real-world impacts of AIDS, as well as the scientific significance of issues like side-effects of
different treatments and resistance to anti-retroviral therapy.
Over its course though, the book seems to speak to a common theme throughout the
different stories and chapters that it presents. On the whole, Saturday is for Funerals encapsulates
the experience that Botswana has had with AIDS, and the way that the disease has affected the
culture of this nation and her people. Through the stories that are told of quiet heroism and tragic
loss, a characterization of a communityif not nationalpsyche built around the disease
emerges. As readers, we are welcomed into the ways that HIV and AIDS have shaken the very
foundation of this country, but also the ways in which the strength of the Batswana people has
challenged this deadly condition. While the book is nearly five years old in a climate where each
year brings new technological advancements and policy implementation that can assist in
furthering the fight against AIDS, it still undoubtedly gives a sense of hope about the future of
Botswanas efforts to control and eliminate this condition. In this way, the book aligns strongly
with learning that we have had in previous class assignments and discussions. Despite the loss
and mourning that is expressed in this book, it holds true that the ultimate message that this work
espouses is one of hope. Botswana, unlike its neighbor to the south, has done a fairly robust job
at rebuking the World Health Organizations 2000 prediction that 85% of fifteen-year-olds in the
nation would eventually succumb to AIDS. Indeed, this is why the novel highlights in its closing
that refugees and immigrants from all over southern Africa see Botswana as the place to be (p.
187). The fact that Botswana has strong and consistent leadership that make it hard not to be
optimistic is a good sign for the future of the country, and indicative of the kind of positive
outlook for the future that I hope to see when visiting in May.
The book definitely does dip into points, though, when this message of hope seems quite
distant. At the beginning of the novel, for example, I found the explanation for the books title

that was given was particularly interesting. Instead of the weddings and celebration which might
have once filled Saturdays in Batswana communities, the climbing rate of AIDS deaths [has
made it such that] funerals are taking up every Saturday, squeezing weddings out of the agenda
altogether (p. 5). The profound impact of the extent of death that HIV has brought with it can be
painfully felt through the words of the authors grandmother when she speaks about this theme.
If you have not seen someone for a while and you meet their mother, she says, you are afraid
to ask after them. Perhaps they have died and you have not heard (p. 6). In my mind, these
words were perhaps the most haunting in the entire book, and drew up a particularly strong level
of human empathy in me as I read them. To not be able to ask after someone you know out of
fear that they might be dead is mind-boggling, and in my mind speaks many more volumes than
any number or statistic.
I felt a similar level of emotion when reading about the story of Masego and Katlego.
Much in line with the initial description of the books title, their story of what should have been
happiness and excitement in love and in starting a new family quickly turned to fighting,
pointing fingers, and contempt. Like Saturday has become consumed by funerals in Botswana,
the marriage of these two souls described initially to be so deeply in love was quickly marred by
newfound information about HIV that irreversibly damaged their relationship. In my mind, this
chapter was one of the most interesting, because of the fractioning role that the disease had in
separating and dividing a family. The fact that this most integral unit of societywhich from my
understanding has an especially important role in Batswana culturecould be disrupted by the
animosity and anger that HIV propagates is astounding. If anything, it is indicative that the
personal and sociological problems which accompany the virus may spread faster than the virion
The third chapter which I found to be very interesting was that which dealt with male
circumcision as a preventative measure for HIV infection. This chapter was particularly
interesting for me because of the way in which it juxtaposed an ancient tribal practice with
modern scientific discussion of important benefits afforded by this practice. Of course, this
attempt to compile the vignette with the virology was commonplace in the book. The two authors
for the book, Max Essex and Unity Dow, are very different in their expertise and skillsets. Max
Essex chairs the Harvard AIDS Initiative, while Unity Dow is a celebrated author and the first
woman to sit on Botswanas High Court. The odd couple, though, work well together as they
facilitate an easy-to-understand medical discussion of situations that give the scientific fact a
more human connection. In the case of male circumcision specifically, this effort to pair the two
important parts of dialogue around HIV was done very well. In many ways, this may have been
facilitated by the serendipitous congruence of best medical practice and ancient cultural tradition.
It was quite interesting to read about the health benefits of circumcision in preventing disease
right after reading about the role that this practice had in tribal culture. Not only is this a point of
great fortune in that this alignment has the possibility of better preventing disease, but the theme
of this chapter also aligns strongly with what my presentation at the end of the semester will

focus on: the role of traditional medicine in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I am now even more
interested in pursuing further research on traditional medical practices and how they might help
(or hurt) in the effort to combat HIV and AIDS.
I would also like to further explore a number of other themes that the authors of Saturday
is for Funerals presented in their book. I would be particularly interested, for example, in getting
the authors perspectives on how things have changed in Botswana since the release of the book,
and how they might be expected to continue to change. I would also be interested in learning
how the authors feel other countries in the region might best adopt practices that made Botswana
more successful at responding to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. After having dedicated an entire
chapter to the importance of government action, it would be interesting to hear what the authors
might write about if they were to pen a book from the perspective of other nations in southern
Africa. To have the chance to sit down and discuss the role of religion and spirituality at the
height of the epidemic with Unity Dow would also be interesting. I think that these themes are
rather common in stories of the will of God or evil spirits being implicated in HIV
propagation. To hear more about how faith was shaken or strengthened (or perhaps both) by the
disease would be a great learning opportunity. Equally as enticing an offer would be the chance
to sit down with Max Essexa man that his Saturday is for Funerals co-author describes as full
of quiet dignity. I would be interested to learn what ongoing efforts are being conducted with
Essexs Harvard AIDS Initiative, and how the scope of this project might expand in the future.
While I have not previously considered a career in infectious disease, this book (and more
broadly, this course) have fueled the ever-growing fire of interest I have in this medical
discipline. To speak with the leading HIV scientist and activist that Essex is would be a great
way to learn more about my own passions and the role that I might play in helping bring about
an end to the disease moving forward. Regardless, if given the chance to meet with either author
I would be sure to congratulate them on the great work that they have done with Saturday is
for Funerals. The novel was a great read and connected a lot of themes that we have covered so
far in the course, and I am glad to have read it.