An artist performs at the outreach exhibition of the Red Ribbon Express (RRE) train at Kumbalangi in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
COCHIN, Kerala, India, 10 April 2009 – March mornings are extremely hot and humid in the small fishing town of Kumbalangi, 15 kilometers from Cochin city in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Very few people leave their homes to brave the blazing mid-day sun.
But this morning is different. Undeterred by the inclement weather, locals are streaming towards the outreach exhibition of the Red Ribbon Express (RRE) train at the Community Care Centre in Kumbalangi. The RRE has reached here after traversing five states and reaching out to more than million people.
The RRE was flagged off on 1 December 2009 from New Delhi’s Safdarjung railway station. Before coming to halt, a year later, in December 2010, the RRE will cover 156 railway stations across 24 states in India, raising awareness about HIV and AIDS.
By noon, a huge crowd of adolescent students, housewives, daily labourers, shopkeepers, self help group members, health workers, panchayat members and other community members assemble and wait in anticipation for the outreach programmes of the RRE to start.
A makeshift stage set up in the common ground near the train proudly displays the colours of the RRE. Messages on condom use, safe sex and HIV and AIDS are also on display.
Around half past noon, after the outreach programme of the RRE is flagged off by the block panchayat president, a vivacious host takes charge and introduces the audience to the purpose of the RRE.
One of the highlights of the programme is the talented ventriloquist who, with the help of his puppet, talks about the various modes of HIV transmission.
He breezes though the difficult topics of sexually transmitted diseases, the importance of abstaining from sex before marriage and staying faithful to ones partner and makes an instant impact on the assembled crowd.
After the ventriloquist’s performance is over, a HIV positive member picks up the thread and shares his story with the audience. Dressed neatly in a shirt and jeans, the HIV positive member Vijay Kumar (name changed) shatters many a myths about people living with HIV.
The crowd is enamoured and inspired by a fit man, courageous enough to share his past with strangers, so that others can learn from his mistakes.
By the time, Kumar ends his speech, the silent crowd, many of them teary eyed, break into loud applause and rush to congratulate the speaker with smiles, handshakes and hugs.
The success of the Red Ribbon Express is indeed captured in this very poignant moment as this HIV positive man is openly embraced and accepted by some members of the crowd.