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“My momma’s got AIDS,” the little girl whispered. It was one of those whispers that is so quiet that it knocks your breath away, like a sonic boom. Her skin was like copper, hardened, and smoother than silk. She had a pockmark on the corner of her forehead, near where her coarse, black hair began to embrace her head.
Then I noticed her dirty “Adiddas” shirt had questionable smears on it, which made my stomach turn. She was beautiful and I was pathetic.
She had been making eyes at me since we climbed in the truck, moving her legs closer until our feet brushed. I wasn’t sure what was appropriate to say, so I had said nothing. But now I felt like I could share one truth for another.
“I’ve never met someone with AIDS until now,” I whispered back.
She nodded, knowingly. “Neither did I until my daddy got sick. He’s gone. My momma was mad at him when she found out. She told me that he shouldn’t have done it, that it was wrong for him to do that to her. I don’t know what she meant, but I guessed it meant that if you have AIDS it means you’re a bad person.”
I listened to her as we bumped our way over the dry, lumpy grass road. I glanced around to see if I could find my water bottle. I wasn’t used to the feeling of dust continually clinging to my skin. We were driving to a medical compound, which according to my uneducated guess, must be even closer to the Kalahari Desert than we already were.
It seemed surreal. I vaguely tried to connect the string of events that got me here, but I quickly gave up doing so. However I got here, I was here. Just for this week. But I was in a different world.
But Kefilwe, my little companion, actually probably had known many people with AIDS before her dad. At least one-fourth of the people in her little African Village were HIV positive, which is actually normal in Botswana (and much of Southern Africa).
I shook my head at the sheer magnitude of the situation. I knew Kefilwe’s mom was dying. Maybe if we could have gotten the antiretroviral drugs to her sooner, but she already had a very advanced case of Tuberculous. I guessed she had less than a month to live.
This poor little girl worked so hard. From sunrise, to sunset she would do what little she could to make her mom’s life less miserable. I marveled that my neighbor’s kid back in the States—the same age as Kefilwe—ate Lucky Charms, went to school, Karate, and then after dinner would watch TV, or maybe go outside to catch fireflies. All the while this girl would be mushing who-knows-what, and then cooking it over a fire for her mom and her to eat. Or maybe she would be fetching water from that stinky mud-hole three miles away to cool off her mom’s forehead.
The only reason I actually believed this nonsense, that Kefilwe’s drastically different life was actually real, was because I had watched her live it for a few days now. And she didn’t complain about it. Which must mean that it’s normal, because if it was my neighbor kid living Kefilwe’s place, there would be hell to hear.
“Do you think only bad people have AIDS?” Kefilwe was on a monologue of questions. “I don’t think my momma’s bad. She doesn’t look pretty, but she’s not bad. The witch-doctor said that my momma has an evil spirit. But the church-people say that God is punishing her.”
I knew that in Botswana, although a large portion of its people consider themselves Christian, many practice a traditional African religion as well, referred to here as Badimo. Although I considered witch-doctors something of story books, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were not so different in America, practicing multiple beliefs at the same time while only claiming one.
“Kefilwe, have you gone to school?” I asked. Kefilwe just looked at me confused and then turned back to admiringly study and cuddle the new stuffed polar bear someone on my team had given her. I wondered if she had heard of polar bears or snow before.
Another passenger took advantage of her distraction, leaned over, and proceeded to explain to me that the small school which had serviced Kefilwe’s village shut down five years ago when both the teachers had passed away because of AIDS. The passenger, who worked for Peace Corps, continued by telling me that if a country who was a major world-player, like India, China, or Russia had the same AIDS infection rate as this area in Africa did, their economies would also falter. Yet, because of their global influence, it would create a domino effect in the economies of the world.
“Are you serious? That just seems so, you know . . . extreme.” I told the Peace Corp, my voice ringing with skepticism.
“It is extreme,” she responded as we bumped over what could only be a ravine. “A huge portion of the cape of Africa’s labor force has already succumbed to AIDS. This has created gaps all over society and overwhelming barriers to growth.”
I knew that India already had a high rate of AIDS infection. I had never considered the effect of such a disease on a whole country before, let alone its effect on a continent, or the world at large.
Kefilwe stopped fiddling with her now-smudged polar bear, picking up our conversation again. “My momma says she won’t come back soon, and it will happen just like when my daddy died. She said she will look even skinnier and not talk much before that happens. She told me I don’t have to cry when she won’t let me feed her.”
I smiled sadly at her, brushing my thumb along her cheek. It’s not everyday I hear such a young child talk about sickness and death. She will soon be added to the fourteen million children who have been orphaned in Southern Africa because of AIDS.
“My momma says I need to get that medicine for myself so I don’t end up like her and daddy. Momma says you have that medicine. She said you could get it for me. She said that the nice people in your big village over the waters will hear about how we need their help, and they will bring us back the medicine.”
I felt like I had done well until that moment—stoic even. But at this comment, my heart finally broke. Kefilwe had put her little hand in mine, and just looked up at me, her eyes huge with hope. I didn’t have any more truth for her—at least none that I could bear for her to hear. I could only hug her to me before she saw my silent tears.
I don’t think Kefilwe was even aware that she was already HIV positive. She never had a choice—she was born with it. A little knowledge, basic medical assistance, and access to antiretroviral drugs could have easily kept her from this fate. Instead Kefilwe is a statistic, one of the 400,000 babies born with HIV yearly. But she had made it this far. Half of the children born with HIV don’t even live past age two.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters, Kefilwe?”
“I have a sister who is about five, and we had a baby brother. He died last year.” I began to panic. Kefilwe was the oldest and her sister was likely HIV positive too. Would Kefilwe have someone to take her in, and regularly give her the antiretroviral drugs when her mom died? Or would she become the head of her household? I shuttered. Kefilwe was only about six-and-a-half.
As if she knew what I was thinking, Kefilwe scooted across the ripped-seats, shyly grabbed me around my waist, and began to sing. Her tiny voice was shaky and off-pitch. But as I smiled down at her, she grew in confidence and sang louder. Soon everyone else riding with us either joined with her song, or was grinning at her, clapping their hands to the beat.
We arrived at the clinic, and I begin to help the medical workers process their new clients. Because of the antiretroviral drugs (AVRs) we were able to deliver, these individuals would not only survive, but probably would even thrive for years. Or at least as long as they had access to them.
After helping distributing the AVRs with me, Kefilwe tugged at my pant leg and asked me for a drink. I stooped to her level, took her little hands, and closed that first forty-cent pill within her fingers.
I hoped my family would not mind the ramifications of what I was about to say. But I couldn’t not.
I took a deep breath and promised her that it would all be okay, that I would make sure of it.
Kefilwe glanced down at that life-giving pill and then gazed in wonder back at me.
She is my hero, even though she looks at me as if I am hers.
“These are the brutal facts of the AIDS pandemic, the doomsday virus that I sometimes call the greatest humanitarian crisis of all time. But once again I want to stress that there is reason for hope. . . Between 2001 and 2005, prevalence rates fell in Botswana from 38.8 to 24.1 percent . . .” (p.150).
Stearns, Richard. 2010. The Hole in Our Gospel. World Vision, Inc. Thomas Nelson: Nashville.
This is a fictitious story based on facts. Kefilwe’s story is meant to give an accurate example of the current situation in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Check out the current global facts on HIV here or go to my post, AIDS/HIV 101: Why Should I Care? for ideas on how to become involved.