BY Michelle Garcia
May 01 2010 12:00 AM ET
When Khafre Abif was diagnosed with HIV just over two decades ago, he was worried about how long he would live. But now that he's reached 43 and his son is heading off to college, Abif has decided he's ready to expand on his outreach efforts as an AIDS counselor and activist to something bigger.
Enter the Cycle for Freedom, a 2,028-mile bike ride along the Underground Railroad, a path used by African slaves to escape to freedom out of the Deep South before the Civil War. This route was chosen for its relevance; Abif wants to raise awareness about HIV among African-Americans, who, he says, are enslaved by the stigma of the virus.
"HIV is associated with promiscuity; it's associated with drugs," Abif explains. "That kind of mental slavery around the issue continues to prevent our community from discussing this openly, from being tested, from being educated, so it's really symbolic to say that my ride is trying to find freedom from that shame, freedom from that stigma, freedom from homophobia to a place where we can openly and freely discuss the issue of HIV."
Abif plans to start his trip May 9 in Mobile, Ala., which is about 800 miles from his home in Pittsburgh. Over the course of about 75 days he'll stop in cities along the biking course created by the Adventure Cycling Association, tracing its way along the Underground Railroad route through Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York before ending in Owen Sound, in the Canadian province of Ontario. While on the road Abif will deliver his message to local media outlets, go to rallies, and screen a documentary in which he was involved, Why Us: Left Behind and Dying. The 90-minute film focuses on why African-Americans are so disproportionately affected by the virus. His stops will also include an offer of HIV testing through New Voices Pittsburgh and One Life for the Test 1 Million project, a campaign created by the Black AIDS Institute.
But why go through the physical stress of a bike ride across America? In 2009, Abif was shaken by the loss of four friends to the virus. "They were considered long-term survivors," he says, "so I had to take some time to really meditate on their loss and have conversations with God, talking about, 'Why am I still here after 21 years of dealing with this virus?'_"
Eventually, he says, he was inspired to bike across the country in the name of HIV awareness: "It might be possible to keep HIV in black America in the news for as long as I'm on the bicycle and to get the community mobilized and informed and to get away from the stigma and shame that are continuing the cycle of continued infections and the rising rates among African-Americans."
During one of the harshest winters on record for Pittsburgh, Abif stuck mainly to training indoors at his local YMCA, which sponsored his membership. He's also been hitting the treadmill, lifting weights, and gathering advice from others who have done similar rides. And, of course, he adds, there are the physical, aesthetic perks that will ultimately come with enduring the course. "I'm going to be so fine when I get off that bike!" he says. "When I get off that bike in July or August, it's going to be over for everyone!"