October 13, 2002 - Jewish Cleveland News: PCV Brett Utian battles AIDS in Africa

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2002: 10 October 2002 Peace Corps Headlines: October 13, 2002 - Jewish Cleveland News: PCV Brett Utian battles AIDS in Africa

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PCV Brett Utian battles AIDS in Africa

Read and comment on this story from the Jewish Cleveland News on Brett Utian, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Lesotho, who has spent the past year-and-a-half spent coordinating AIDS education and nutrition in the district of Kuthing has been a transforming experience for the wiry, curly-haired adventurer. at:

Clevelander battles AIDS in Africa*

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Clevelander battles AIDS in Africa

Caption: At a rally held in Utian's district, schoolchildren hold signs saying, "We stand together against AIDS."


Abandoning the corporate world, Brett Utian finds purpose in Third World.

By SUSAN H. KAHN Assistant Editor

"I feel tied to Africa, the sounds and the smells," says Brett Utian. "It is an exciting place with a totally different way of life."

Born in South Africa, Utian, 35, moved to Cleveland with his family in 1977. Now a Peace Corps volunteer, he calls the small, poor southern African nation of Lesotho home, a far cry from the luxury of his suburban upbringing. This past year-and-a-half spent coordinating AIDS education and nutrition in the district of Kuthing has been a transforming experience for the wiry, curly-haired adventurer.

It wasn't long ago that Utian, son of Dr. Wulf and Moira Utian, thought his future lay in the corporate world. The Orange High School graduate studied economics at Vassar and earned an MBA at Thunderbird American Graduate School of International Management in Arizona. He worked for companies like MBNA, Progressive Insurance, the World Trade Center in Phoenix and Charles Schwab.

Two years ago, Utian was a temporary project manager at Schwab, but when the economy soured, they put a freeze on hiring.

"I took that as a sign that it was time for me to take a big jump," he says. Twice in his years since college, Utian began the application process for the Peace Corps. This time he completed it.

Despite the primitive conditions in Lesotho - he lives in a one-room, thatched-roof building with no electricity or hot water - he delights in his surroundings.

"I live in a mountainous area that is beautiful," he says. "My 'commute' is a walk through the hills."

But the two million mostly black inhabitants of this beautiful land are living under a shadow. Many of Lesotho's men went to work in South Africa's mines and returned infected with AIDS. Now, 30% of the population ages 15-49 are infected and, absent medications, one in three will die of AIDS in the next five years.

Families are breaking down, says Utian, and young children are often raped because of belief in the myth that if an infected man sleeps with a virgin he will be cured.

"In Africa, 85-90% of the spread of AIDS is from unprotected heterosexual sex," says Utian. "But prevention education and condom distribution is not well accepted."

Utian and a Peace Corps colleague coordinate Planned Parenthood activities in the Kuthing district which has a population of about 100,000. The two run a youth group at the mission school where Utian lives. Their major focus is on AIDS education and prevention. Since school tuition is expensive and students often drop out and re-enroll as their circumstances allow, they reach people ages 12-29.

In this male-dominated society, where the concept of spousal rape does not exist and the age of consent is 12 or 13, many prefer to turn a blind eye to the disease. People often refuse to be tested because they don't want to be stigmatized.

"In my school, the principal does most of the AIDS education even though her husband beats her when she goes out to speak about it," he admits.

Government officials have not made AIDS a priority because they are too busy coping with chronic food shortages.

"People who are infected don't get proper nutrition, and there are no AIDS drugs," explains Utian. "We're lucky to have aspirin and bandages." The hospital in the capital city of Masery won't accept any AIDS patients, since there are not enough beds, so people are sent home to die.

Utian, who spoke to the CJN when he was in Cleveland for a family visit, will finish his Peace Corps assignment in April. Despite missing hot showers and Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, he says he'd like to stay on in Africa, perhaps in Botswana, which has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world, but which also has the largest testing center.

He hopes to work in the development end of the fight against the disease, with an organization like the UN Global Fund or the Gates Foundation.

Acknowledging the frustration built into his daunting task, he nonetheless finds it much more rewarding than work in the corporate world.

In a variation on the talmudic saying that equates the saving of one life to saving the whole world, Utian says, "If we save one life, we're making a difference."

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