MICHAEL McCOLLY WAS A VOLUNTEER in Senegal in the early ’80s working in community development and public health. He was profoundly affected by the spirituality of the people who lived in his village and nearby. Fifteen years later he became HIV positive. While trying to care for himself he experienced the growth of his own spirituality which eventually led to life as an AIDS activist. Michael’s book about this transition, The After Death Room: Journeys into Spiritual Activism, has just been published by Soft Skull Press.
Michael, tell us something about how you were raised, your motivation for joining Peace Corps, and how your experience as a Volunteer in Senegal affected the way you’ve come to look at life.
My childhood and the cultural environment of the ’60s and ’70s shaped who I am and the path I have chosen. My parents were educators, progressive people, Unitarian types. They liked to travel and they exposed my sisters and me to a less privileged America. So in a way the Peace Corps was in the cards. I joined though, like many other 22-year-olds, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do next with my life. I was also terrified of dealing with my bisexuality and I used Peace Corps to run away from that. The Peace Corps experience didn’t help me handle my sexuality, but it did shatter most of my intellectual, political and spiritual framework. I had never experienced the kind of religiosity that permeated Senegalese life, particularly among the rural Sufi sect of Mourides with whom I lived. The intensity of their faith and belief not only in Islam but in their traditional beliefs deeply impressed me.
How did your experiences during and after your time in Senegal help you cope with the reality of your HIV infection?
When I came back from Senegal, I entered divinity school at the University of Chicago. You talk about a reversal of landscapes, South Side Chicago and the Senegalese savannah. It was a kind of poetic irony to be sitting in Hyde Park in an ivory tower and looking out a window at housing projects and discussing liberation theology and philosophy. I suffered an acute case of cultural shock, and eventually dropped the idea of getting a PhD. Though I cursed Chicago for its intellectual coldness, it propelled me deeper into the issues that animate much of what I write about the intersection of spirituality with activism and ethics. Both Senegal and Chicago were fertile grounds for an empty minded, small town, Midwestern white kid. They turned me into a writer. They demanded that I ask more questions of myself and the world. So when I became infected in the mid ’90s, I’d already felt in some ways prepared for the existential and spiritual crisis that accompanied my diagnosis. When you face HIV and AIDS, you learn that you have to immediately face three psycho-spiritual challenges: your body no longer can be ignored and needs to be embraced with your full self; that your ego is no longer (and never was) in control of your life; and that you now represent the deepest fears in most people who are around you death, illness, sexual rebellion. Here is where my Peace Corps experience resurfaced and offered a surprising lifeline. I remembered how the people of my village dealt with economic marginality, suffering, illness, and death with such dignity and power. I began to identify more and more with those outside the mainstream world I’d been groomed and educated to work in and defend. HIV connected me to the larger world, both metaphorically and literally, as this virus had passed through so many people to land inside me.
What happened to take you from an individual trying to live with and survive HIV toward becoming an activist for people around the world living with the same affliction?
It all started with the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa in 2000. Again, Africa had come to wake me up. I’d kept my distance about AIDS in Chicago; no walks, no runs, no benefits. When I heard something on TV or saw an article in a magazine, I turned away. I wanted nothing to do with it. I had it; that was enough. By this time, I was practicing and teaching yoga and one day I found myself doing a workshop for people with HIV in Chicago. From there, I was doing yoga workshops in Durban for AIDS activists and advocates from all over the world. People came up to me and wanted more workshops. Teenage girls from Soweto wanted me to come to their churches. Women from Kenya wanted me to come to their women’s group in Nairobi. I was stunned and unprepared for this outpouring. It was the Peace Corps guilt all over again: “You said you wanted to help, so why can’t you stay and help us?”
After the AIDS Conference you started traveling to parts of the developing world where HIV was rapidly spreading. Where did your journeys take you?
This was the beginning of the book. I came back to Chicago haunted by the work of the activists I met in South Africa and their pleas for me to stay and help. So I sold my belongings, took a leave of absence from my teaching position, and headed to Asia and back to Africa to chronicle the remarkable work of AIDS activists and their work, focusing primarily on HIV positive activists. In the course of my travels through India, Thailand, Vietnam, and back to Senegal, and at home in Chicago, I interviewed well over a hundred activists, social workers, doctors, healers, government officials, clergy, and people living with HIV. I decided to go to India first, as the pandemic seemed to be exploding there.
Tell us about this time in India.
I had traveled to India four years before to study yoga. Then, India and its people had a powerful effect on me. But when I got off the plane in Chennai, I only had a telephone number for a man who ran a community organization to help male sex workers. An hour later I was sitting among a group of young men in the offices of Sahodaran. India takes you, swallows you, makes you listen and drop your bullshit. You can’t fight it. You can’t control anything. I went to a clinic and got yelled at by a doctor for bothering them until I told him that I was HIV positive; then, he told me he was too. Social workers invited me into their homes. People fed me and were concerned about my health. I followed these young men as they passed out condoms to other male sex workers in alleys, on filthy river banks and along train tracks. Before I left I offered a yoga workshop for them. So there I was in India teaching yoga to male sex workers who knew the Sanskrit names of the poses but couldn’t understand my English. India is a land of irony, to be sure.
What are some of the things you saw that really disturbed you?
Like here in the States, fear and self-righteous authorities are the biggest obstacles to changing policy and educating those most at-risk. More than anything, AIDS is driven by greed and the cultural beliefs that deny the rights and power of those most at risk: women (particularly young women), sex workers (male and female), drug users, gay and bisexual young men and the poor. To witness the cruelty and the despair of people who are banished from their families was painful. But perhaps the most difficult of all was to have to face hundreds of people whose lives are in jeopardy because they don’t have the drugs and treatment I have access to. This will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Your journey ends with a visit to the village where you lived in Senegal. Tell us about your return?
Yes, the final scene in my book is in my village in southern Senegal. I went there the day after meeting with female sex workers about 30 miles away in the town of Kaolack. I broke down when these women began calling on Allah to protect me and keep me from death. I was so moved by their prayers I could barely walk out of their hut. Later in my village, I was treated as if I’d never left. Scores and scores of people came to the village chief’s hut to greet me, thanking Allah for bringing me back to them. This was only months after 9/11. Sadly, due to the cruelties of world agricultural markets and trade agreements, they had become poorer and unable to compete with peanut farmers in other countries. And yet, here were people with only their meager belongings and beliefs in hard work and Allah’s mercy blessing my family and all my old PCV friends and all of America. It was a deeply humbling experience. I tried to tell them why I’d come back to Senegal, but I couldn’t tell them I had HIV. The village chief, a 14 year old when I’d left, sobbed, fell to the ground, and covered his face when I recalled his father. Was it me who came back or was it Allah who brought me back to these sacred people of the savannahs of Senegambia?
How did you go about getting your book published?
I had very little experience with getting my writing published. I had collected a series of ethnographic and personal essays written by students from writing classes I’d taught in Chicago in the ’90s published as The World is Round. I wrote the introduction on how they affected me and my writing. They really taught me about presenting the personal narrative. After I started my travels I wrote smaller pieces on South Africa, India and Viet Nam for magazines. I then put together a proposal for a non-fiction book with an outline of some chapters. I went around to agents and publishers with little luck. Later I found Soft Skull Press through Transition magazine out of Harvard. It’s all very confusing to me. Who does what in publishing? How do you get a good agent and then get your work to the right editor? I started with one agent who dropped me, but luckily I found Joy Harris of Joy Harris Agency and we tried again.
What’s your next writing project?
I’m still exhausted from this book: six years, all the travel, research, deeply personal reflection, and now the promotion. In the next year I want to keep speaking about the issues I raised in my book. I have been speaking on college campuses, in churches, and at conferences. My research, interviews and study of yoga have interested me in the relationship between sexuality and spirituality and how they influence each other. I think it is critically important to inform people from across religious, cultural, and social lines about sexual health and its relationship to social responsibility, spiritual maturity and activism.
What do you have to say to former Peace Corps Volunteers who are living with HIV disease?
My advice is to find ways to transform your body and mind from that of a victim dependent on others and medicine for your health to that of an actor in your own rediscovery of your body and health. We are all diseased bodies; we are all sacred entities. Find your strength and cultivate it. Find your tribe of people and get involved in helping others. No doubt, your strength is the same strength that carried you out into the world to join the Peace Corps.
Mike Learned is the group leader and newsletter editor of the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual RPCVs, an active affiliate of the NPCA. The newsletter and other information about this organization are available on their web site, www.lgbrpcv.org).
Mike lives in San Francisco and works for a consulting firm in Boston. He trains technical and web content writers around the world. In recent years Mike has become fascinated by the remote parts of our world, particularly those near the two poles. He’s spending a month and a half this summer in the far north (mostly Iceland and Greenland). He wants to see it all before it and we melt. Mike can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.