In October of 1998, local AIDS activist Akida K. Sababu led a handful of volunteers hauling oversized duffel bags on a trip to Zimbabwe. The bags were filled with thousands of dollars worth of AIDS medicine and related medical supplies, which they had collected in Cleveland.
Distributing the medicine had a negligible effect on the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, where the virus has killed 11 million people and infected 22 million others. Nevertheless, Sababu declared the trip a success and quickly began planning his return. He dubbed his effort a "mission of hope" -- a phrase he borrowed from a local television station that followed him to Africa.
Sababu may be a hero overseas, but he is not regarded as such by AIDS activists here. The trip to Zimbabwe and a subsequent trip last November to Zambia have hampered his ability to attract support and money from the area's larger AIDS service providers and funders, who view Sababu's trips as self-promotional and a waste of resources. While few individuals from these organizations will go on record with complaints about Sababu, he openly acknowledges their criticism.
"The biggest complaint is that [I] have abandoned Cleveland," says Sababu, who is planning trips to Africa next month and again this summer. "As soon as I got back, I received complaints that [I] spent money going to Africa, when it should have been spent here. The establishment's [support] dried up after we got back. Their attitude was "Let them take care of their own.'"
Sababu says his organization, which relies on volunteers operating out of an office on West 25th Street on a shoestring budget of less than $20,000 a year, isn't expecting any major funding from local AIDS service providers. Nor will their antipathy change his travel plans.
"A whole generation of Africans [is] dying," he says. "I believe their lives are inexorably linked to ours. If they die, we die. It is our homeland."
Sababu takes his trips under the auspices of the Jeffrey D. Heard HIV/AIDS Counseling and Outreach Center, an organization he founded from his West Side apartment in 1997 to help blacks infected with HIV. Named in honor of a friend who died of AIDS, the group was initially a welcome resource. The HIV-infection rate in Cleveland has become higher among gay black men than any other group, yet few organizations have focused exclusively on reaching the black community.
Sababu built his reputation as an activist by charging that black leaders, particularly church pastors, weren't doing enough to stop the spread of AIDS in Cleveland. "Black leaders are in a coma when it comes to dealing with AIDS," he charges. "They have turned a deaf ear on the AIDS issue."
In light of Sababu's focus on Africa, though, comments like this ring hollow in local ears.
"I have issues with people using resources we need here," says Kelvin Berry, who runs AGAPE, an HIV/AIDS outreach ministry at the Antioch Baptist Church, located in the city's Fairfax neighborhood.
Berry does credit Sababu with trying to enlist local church leaders in the fight against AIDS. Two years ago, Berry and Antioch Baptist Church's Reverend Marvin McMickle met with Sababu to discuss what church leaders could do. McMickle had already initiated discussions with the Cleveland Clinic about launching an AIDS prevention program in Fairfax. But Sababu's influence was important in advancing the cause, according to Berry.
"Two years ago, churches didn't want to talk about [AIDS]," he says. "Now they are talking about it."
Earl Pike, executive director of the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland, is reluctant to criticize Sababu himself. Like Berry, though, he believes that AIDS efforts should be focused on the local community. "I'm glad [Sababu] has raised the issue of America's responsibility in Africa," says Pike, whose organization does not fund the Jeffrey Heard Center. "But it is a question of what we should do and how resources are being used."
Pike says that the money raised to send Sababu and his crew to Africa would be better spent training health workers there to combat the disease and to purchase medicine specifically for stopping the transfer of the HIV virus between mothers and their children. That said, Pike still believes the primary commitment to stopping AIDS should stay here -- particularly in light of the impoverished local clientele.
"I can't remember the last time we had a white gay professional male," Pike says. "Ninety percent of our clients have an income of less than $6,000."
Sababu insists he has not abandoned his mission of helping the black community in Cleveland, particularly the poor. He claims a client case load of around 200, although others question the quality and depth of service he can provide without a significant budget.
"My center is never closed when I travel to Africa," counters Sababu. "The money I raise is earmarked specifically for the trip. And the supplies and medicine are donated, not purchased."
Sababu says the cost of his upcoming trip is being paid for by the government of Zambia. As for the medications he is delivering, he says they were either donated by the Free Clinic or gathered from local AIDS patients who have died or changed medication.
Perhaps a better hint of where Sababu's loyalties and interests lie can be gleaned from a subtle change he made after his first trip to Africa, when he added "international" to the title of his organization. In a recent press release, Sababu also touted the opening of "a branch of the [Jeffrey Heard] Center" in Lusaka, Zambia.
He plans to use it as his headquarters for future trips to Africa.
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