Staring at an AK-47 pointed at his head during Zimbabwe’s recent coup was not Cole Capener’s scariest moment in that African nation.
No, for the Utahn, who has visited there annually since the turn of the 21st century to check on his nonprofit foundation helping HIV-infected Zimbabweans, the most frightening episode happened during a time of hyperinflation and a dramatic food shortage.
He couldn’t find anything to eat where he was staying, and empty shelves greeted him at separate markets.
“For a moment, I kind of panicked,” Capener recalled this week. “I had money in my pocket and nothing to spend it on.”
As his hunger grew, the Park City resident wondered: How are locals, without money, feeding themselves?
Capener was especially worried about the HIV-infected population his foundation had been working to serve since 2001.
With Friday marking World AIDS Day, the activist reflected on how his foundation — as well as the needs it was created to meet and the south African nation where it landed — has evolved.
Capener launched his effort after a decadeslong successful and lucrative legal career — much of that time in China. He was comfortable and wanted to lift others.
The impetus came partly from his religious worldview, which he describes as “a combination of my Mormonism, sprinkled with compassion I see in Buddhism, which I picked up in Asia and inspired by the Salvation Army in Zimbabwe.”
Though sub-Saharan Africa wasn’t his area of expertise, the Utah attorney had a “soft spot in his heart” for a corner of the continent being decimated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. About 28.5 million people there were living with the killer disease back then, including pregnant women.
A cocktail of drugs, known as antiretroviral medicines, had been developed to block transmission of the disease to newborns, but it was financially out of reach to the poorest Zimbabweans.
Former NBA superstar Magic Johnson could afford the medicine, but no one in Africa could.
Even if infants escaped the condition, however, many of their mothers died, leaving more than 720,000 orphans.
That’s when Capener came up with SAFE (Saving African Families Enterprise), whose main goal was to fund the preventive regimen for as many as it could. It would be managed completely by a tiny army of volunteers, including himself.
He started small, raising about $12,000 to treat 20 women for six months.
“We figured the best way to prevent orphans,” he said, “was to keep the moms and dads alive.”
These days, the lifesaving treatments have become more available, he said. And big U.S. philanthropic organizations, including the Clinton and Gates foundations, have contributed millions toward the push.
“We are seeing an arc of progress,” Capener said, “the number of new infections has dropped and so has the number of deaths.”
In Zimbabwe, the percentage of people with HIV who are taking meds and have access to them “has increased dramatically,” he said, “from 0 percent to around 75.”
Still, the country saw 40,000 new infections last year and 30,000 died from it, Capener said. “Some 1.3 million people in a country of 16 million have this virus. That’s almost 10 percent.”
As treatment became easier to get, HIV was not killing so many, he said, “but poverty was.”
In 2007, the country spiraled into an accelerating financial crisis. Inflation shot up by 2 million percent. Food became scarce. People were starving. The sick were dying for want of simple medicine and health care.
Capener wanted SAFE to address this catastrophe so the group created a microcredit program, which he believes was the first such project for people living with HIV.
The problem? With such inflation, when you loan money one day, two months later, it is worthless.
Finally, in 2008, Zimbabwe introduced U.S. currency, which resolved the inflation issue and made it possible for SAFE to provide seed capital for small projects.
Like the “boar project.”
One day, SAFE officials got a call from an AIDS orphanage, saying it had seven sow (female pigs), but no boar (male).
Volunteers went out, bought a male pig, put it on a truck and hauled it to the callers, Capener reports. “That male pig has produced hundreds of piglets — half of which they butcher and give to the kids and the other half they sell to generate funds for school fees.”
That’s the “kind of gifts we like,” he said, “because they keep on giving.”
Yet, plenty of problems remain in the country’s basic services.
Electricity is spotty in urban areas and almost nonexistent in the countryside. Roads are horrible, nearly impassible. Fuel is sparse. Communication is difficult. Bank withdrawals can be lengthy and limited.
Even so, Capener is optimistic about Zimbabwe’s recent transfer of power. During the coup, Capener saw no civil unrest. No looting. There was, he said, “a surreal calm.”
Word reached him of the possibility that the airport would shut down, though, and he yearned to get back to his anxious wife and daughter in Utah.
He hired a driver and headed toward his potential flight, seeing neither police nor soldiers in the city until the pair hit a roadblock near the airport.
A young soldier with a big gun demanded the driver provide identification, which he did. Then he asked what was in back.
“A stack of quilts for orphans,” shrugged the Utahn, nonchalantly.
The soldier waved the car through but kept his weapon aimed at them, which, the amiable attorney acknowledges “was a little unnerving.”
Capener arrived home without incident, feeling fulfilled by his modest foundation.
“SAFE has lived up to its name,” he said. “It has done all it could to save lives.”
Including, in a way, his own.