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Two inspired locals go global to tackle the AIDS epidemic

Spiders, Chickens, and HIV

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Many of the world's best ideas are born in bars. The rest come in dreams. Almost a decade ago, Jessica Lambrakos and Tera Mabe were slinging drinks at Vickery's when they decided to take a trip to Africa to work at the heart of the AIDS crisis. But that's a pricey venture, and the idea remained just that. Then two years ago, Lambrakos had a dream in which a guardian angel told her to make a calendar (of tastefully covered naked people) and sell it.

Today, the pair is two months back into the land of water pressure, Diet Mountain Dew, and laws against female genital mutilation. The calendar was a success, along with their website, www.nakedtruthsc.com. From April to June, the friends lived in the village of Moshi, at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. They worked with Cross Cultural Solutions, a short-term Peace Corps-type program that coordinates volunteers from around the world. Lambrakos wrote grants to acquire money for AIDS orphans to go to school, while Mabe spent her days with a group of virus-stricken women, many single and with multiple children.

The Associated Press reported in July that the worldwide AIDS epidemic was stabilizing, and that the number of virus-related deaths dropped from 2.2 million to 2 million between 2005 and 2006. That's mostly thanks to more access to drugs and education efforts. But on the front lines in Africa, statistics are irrelevant.

"There was a man we went to see, living in a room as big as my living room with six people, built of sticks and wood," recalls Lambrakos. "We took soap, Kleenex, or a razor to home visits, because they don't have anything. He was shaking, laying in bed as his 80-year-old mother shaved him with a crappy old dry razor."

Another woman they visited had gone blind and couldn't speak; she died days later. In a region with a life expectancy already far lower than in the U.S., an HIV diagnosis is generally a death sentence within five to 10 years. Although the Tanzanian government now provides free drugs, most people in rural Moshi can't afford the 30-or-so cents it costs to travel to the hospital, let alone leave behind the responsibilities of a home and children for the day.

That's not to mention the stigma that goes along with an HIV-positive diagnosis. Lambrakos and Mabe found that their biggest challenge was breaking through stereotypes that discourage responsible sex and testing.

"It's nearly impossible for them to stop spreading it, the way they choose to ignore it," says Mabe. "We developed a peer education manual and talked to a lot of kids in the area. Doing condom demonstrations in the schools was like landing a spaceship there. We'd have them read stories about people who had AIDS. You should have seen their faces when they had to read the word 'sex.'"

In a culture where polygamy is still normal and women are expected to always say, "yes," education is the best medicine for prevention. Taboo beliefs about AIDS spreading through shaking hands, sleeping in the same room, or sharing a toilet are still prevalent, and the inflicted are often ostracized, discouraging testing. Many Tanzanians who have converted to Christianity or Islam believe that a positive result is punishment from God, so they'd rather not know.

Lambrakos, who worked for Lowcountry AIDS Services leading peer education in 2002, says she once met a woman in Charleston who believed she could fend off AIDS by imagining a bright, white light during intercourse. Even that sort of misinformation doesn't compare to the medical doctor who led their orientation in Tanzania. He told them that those few white people that contract HIV are gay, and that "white people brought homosexuality to Africa."

Beyond frustrating misbeliefs, Lambrakos and Mabe encountered everything from a mango fly that laid eggs in a co-workers arm (after it swelled, they cut it open and maggots wiggled out), and a huge spider crawling across Lambrakos' face in her mosquito-net bed. Their primary food, ogali, resembled "Styrofoam-flavored mash potatoes," and any time they traveled, it was amongst crates of chickens and a mass of humanity on a rickety bus.

The Naked Truth calendar is returning for 2009, but this time, the friends are staying stateside. Funding their trip cost $5,000 each, money that could have a phenomenal impact if spent directly in Moshi. For perspective, in the two months Lambrakos worked for the nonprofit White Orange Youth, the largest grant it received was $100 from a local bank.

"When you're trying to write grants and raise funds amongst people that don't have any money, it gets a little tricky," says Lambrakos. "The rent White Orange Youth was struggling to pay was the equivalent of $50 a month. We know from what we've done that we can do it more efficiently."

Mabe adds that $100 would cover two to three months of operating expenses for the Jipe Moyo womens' group she worked with.

Money from this year's calendar will also go toward local AIDS organizations. The tri-county area currently has 3,396 known HIV-positive citizens, part of 1.2 million cases nationwide. Lambrakos and Mabe had originally hoped for the calendar to feature only HIV-positive models, but struggled to find enough participants willing to go public out of concerns about the stigma and its role in housing discrimination, health insurance, and employment.

One HIV-positive woman, Edie Sansbury-White, jumped at the chance though, sharing her story and posing as Miss March. She plans to participate again, and says any money to help people unable to acquire drugs locally is a wonderful thing.

"My husband, thankfully, got a job where the health insurance covers all preexisting conditions, because the drugs are $1,500 a month," says Sansbury-White. "What happens is if you're really poor, you can get your medicine, and if you're really rich you can afford them. People get stuck in the middle."

Last year's calendar featured a who's who of Charleston's food and bev crowd, including staff at Grill 225, Santi's, Charleston Place, The Rooftop at Vendue Range, Vickery's, and Mustard Seed. Lambrakos says that with the word out that they're not producing "triple X porn," more and more people have expressed interest in posing. They're hopeful about the impact the 2009 calendar will make for people with HIV in Charleston.

"We've tended, as Medicaid and drugs have gotten better and the disease has become more livable, to push AIDS back under the rug," says Lambrakos. "Our problem pales in comparison (to Tanzania's). But regardless of where you live, there still isn't a cure."

The Naked Truth hosts a "Summer Smackdown" mud wrestling tournament at The Chart (1078 East Montague Ave., North Charleston) on Sat., Aug. 31, to raise money for the 2009 calendar.

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