As a student of international studies and international politics, AIDS has been an area of academia that I've constantly been exposed to. However, it wasn't until this summer, when I became immersed in an AIDS environment, that I actually realized how deeply the disease affects me, even as someone who is not HIV+. Just a short recap for those of you who didn't follow me this summer, I spent 6 weeks in southern Africa as part of a Fulbright program focused on education. During this time, we traveled throughout the southern part of the continent and experienced many different peoples, cultures, traditions, economies, political structures, etc. It was an incredible experience that I will forever cherish. Although I was moved by a variety of things throughout the trip, the most emotional and profoundly affecting experiences were the times spent with those suffering from or affected by HIV/AIDS.
Throughout the preparations for the trip, and even during the first week of the trip, I mentally prepared myself for what I was about to experience. I read about AIDS, I read about Lesotho, I read about people who have spent time in the region and have been affected by the disease. I read, I read, I read. However, no amount of reading could have fully prepared me for this experience. I thought it would, but I was sorely mistaken.
I guess you could say that I was fortunate to have a gradual introduction to what life really is like for those affected by AIDS. Our first week in Lesotho was spent in Morija, where we stayed at a wonderful guest house that was also a temporary home to a lovely Canadian family who was there adopting a young girl, Rethabile. Billy, as they called her, was an AIDS orphan (meaning her parents died of AIDS, not that she has AIDS) who was left with no family and therefore sent to a large orphanage in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. I was fortunate to build a relationship with this family and to be able to talk to them nightly about their experience. The conversation I remember most was about the orphanage in which Billy was placed. They described it in detail, painting vivd pictures of rooms full of hundreds of orphans lying on the ground because there was no funding for beds, mess halls full of bugs, kids running around with little or no clothing and no shoes at all. As I listened to their story with tears in my eyes, I looked over at little Billy and made a personal vow to do everything I could to help children like her. Although this was incredibly emotional, I had yet to experience AIDS first hand.
Upon our arrival in Roma, our second location in Lesotho, we were greeted by several small, friendly, happy children. Some of my fellow travelers suspected that their happiness was due to their association of white people to free stuff, but I like to believe that they are genuinely happy just to have someone to play with for a few minutes. Before even unloading our luggage from the bus, we went out to meet and spend a little time with the children. We were swarmed immediately, as kids grabbed our hands, our waists, our legs and didn't let go. They showed us their school, their community center and their homes. We skipped and ran and laughed and played. We attempted conversations that fell flat after a few sentences of broken English, but rebounded with smiles and body language. We never let go of their hands. This continued on for awhile until it was time for us to go back to our lodgings. I cried as I walked away. I cried as we unloaded and unpacked. I cried myself to sleep as I laid in my comfortable bed with a full stomach, a pillow under my head and a heater on full blast. I cried for the kids who have so little, who are so sick, who have lost their family to AIDS, who are so happy and continue to smile, laugh and play despite the circumstances. Nothing I read prepared me for those emotions.
The rest of our time in Roma was spent in the local school and community centers where we played with and taught hundreds of kids, many who have physical signs of AIDS. In fact, one of my favorite kids was clearly HIV+. There were hundreds of kids like her, but for some reason, she became mine. Everyday she would find me and welcome me with a smile and a hug and a sweet greeting in her best English. At the end of the day, she would proudly show me things she made or toys she brought with her. On our last day working with the kids, my girl and I said our final goodbye and handed each other a small token to remember the other by. Due to the language barrier I never heard her story, and that makes me sad to this day. I cherish the time spent with her....the games played, the lessons taught and of course the dancing. Maybe someday I'll see her again, but for now, I can only look at the small rock she gave me, think of her often and hope that she's doing well.
On one of our final days in Roma, we were lucky enough to have a visit from an HIV+ woman named Daphne. Daphne talked with us at length about how AIDS has affected her and how it affects the community in general. She described the stigmas associated with the disease and how she dealt with them. She told us about how it affected her physically, mentally and emotionally. How it has affected her family, her husband, her children, her reputation, her employment status. She shared her entire experience with us...complete strangers. I learned so much from her, not only about the disease itself, but about personal strength, the importance of family and the role of AIDS in Lesotho.
These experiences are responsible for who I am now and what I plan to do in the future. This is when I realized that I can no longer associate AIDS with statistics and graphs. Instead, I now think of people....real people with real struggles and real lives. Real people who need our help. Some of you may be wondering about that vow I made when learning about Billy's struggle. In a nutshell, I've vowed to help in a variety of ways, including fundraising, returning to Lesotho to volunteer, working with organizations focused on the issue and (eventually) adopting my very own Billy.
My inspirational Lesotho devotee said the following in his blog and I couldn't have said it better myself.
"It saddens me that the one day Lesotho is recognized and talked about is on World AIDS Day. It is a country of such rich history, culture and beauty. But my hope is that after people hear about the AIDS epidemic in Lesotho, they are moved to take action. The possibility of hope, as daunting as it may seem, is possible in Lesotho. For us, every day should be World AIDS Day until this deadly disease is wiped off our planet."I'm devoted to change, and I hope that you are too.