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Hope is the Spark that Changes Lives

June 7, 2012 – Bangui, Central African Republic

After a great night sleep, I find myself with an easy-going day. I needed this day in between border crossings and the flight to Kenya because I had no idea if I’d make the crossing on time. Because I did manage to cross in time, I have an extra day, which allowed me to wash my clothes (how will I EVER get the red dirt out of my jeans?) and shop for some amoeba and parasite medicine, should I need it later on. Thelma and I went out to a nice place for lunch because I am so grateful to her for all she’s done for me, hosting me in Bangui. Before you knew it, I find myself floating.

June 5, 2012 – Gemena, DRC

Today starts very, very early (4:30am), thanks to a large rodent living above my room at the Elikya Center. It is so large, in fact, that I think Rachel is having trouble moving a suitcase in the next room, although the sound is coming from above, not beside me. Either way, I go to see if I can help her and she laughs. She is coming to see if she can help me with anything! No, it is neither of us…it is a large rat of sorts. No more sleep for me, thank you very much!

With hours to kill before work starts at 8am, we take cold showers, eat a simple breakfast, and walk into town. It is an easy 35 minute walk with everyone stopping us to ask where we are going and to introduce themselves. The sun is pretty hot already and I feel my shirt sticking to me, even though it is not yet 8am.

We meet at the Gemena office with the PEASIT team, Rachel acting as my translator. They are the folks who help children with HIV/AIDS on the social end of the spectrum. We have a great talk and make plans for support, assuming they will do better on reporting. They want to grow so quickly! Too quickly, I tell them. We talk about patience and about making this sustainable so that we all work ourselves out of jobs. We discuss the need to plan well but to not get stuck in planning sessions while nothing gets done. Priorities. Monitoring. Evaluation. All these things were discussed among friends and it was a good time.

This team of lovely men and women surprise me by hosting a lunch which they planned and cooked. The food is delicious! Mama Francois is a fabulous cook and I could eat the goat she cooks every day if I could. After jokes, laughter, good food, and chatting, the group humors me and they sing a couple of sounds. What a talented group they are and they know how to meld their voices as they sing together. One man who works with the deaf signs everything being sung and I love seeing yet another language for the deaf which I’ve never seen. It really is like music to my ears even though there is no sound.

June 6, 2012 – DRC to CAR

The alarm goes off at 2:15am and I hurry to put on my jeans and boots. Gilbert, a mechanic named Augustine and I are heading back to CAR, hoping to make it across the border before 5pm, when it closes.

The night is beautiful! We careen through villages who are fast asleep. The quiet is only broken by the loud rumblings of our G&S (Glue and Spit) pickup truck, which Gilbert has been working on for three days.

Six hours pass.

Gilbert is falling asleep. He helped a friend last night and didn’t get much rest before we took off and it is catching up with him. I offer to drive and he accepts! I think he is kidding and I really think Augustine wishes he is kidding. But, he is not and in no time, I am behind G&S’s wheel, going up and down huge crevasses, skirting puddles, going through puddles, and basically just being Gilbert. People stop what they are doing and point and some scream “a white woman is driving!”. Gilbert laughs, as do I. I have no idea what Augustine does, but I think he likes my driving because I am slower and more careful with the chickens and goats who cross our path. This means less sudden turns and less flying around as we hit the holes.

Another hour passes and I change seats with Gilbert because we are coming on a police crossing and I really don’t want to deal with that.

We get a flat tire.

With the tire fixed, we carry on for another hour. We pass a large broken down truck and pick up a woman and her toddler and baby, as they are going in our direction and need a ride. I take the baby with me, as the toddler screams hysterically every time I come near. Her mom explains to me with a laugh that the child has never seen a white person. I laugh and make funny faces at the little girl who wails all the louder. The baby doesn’t mind my color and she sleeps for the hour we manage to ride before something is wrong with the back axle.

Half an hour after we stop, we are on the road again and the baby plays with a bracelet Juju made me and which I haven’t taken off. Gilbert and I bet to see who can figure out when we’ll reach the border. G doesn’t speak English, so the fact that we can bet is amazing. He votes for 1:30pm. I vote for after 3:00pm. He looks horrified and a bit insulted that I think that he can’t make it from Gemena to Bangui in less than 12 hours. I tell him I hope he is right. Since Gilbert is tired, I ply him for Lingala words to keep him awake. He asks me to describe the difference between the words “woman and wife”, “children and child”, and to let him know what “like”, “difference”, and “occasion” mean. This keeps s busy for a while. The baby falls back asleep.

Gilbert lets me know he is going to win the bet and that I can say “Bravo, Gilbert” in 20 minutes, when we reach the border at Zongo. I am so happy! I have given all my food away and all I’ve had all day is a granola bar at 6am. Suddenly, something goes terribly wrong with the car and even I, a non-mechanic, know we are in big trouble. It is the transmission and we are stuck. Really stuck. The woman and children walk on, leaving us with a wave and a smile. G and I walk a while to find a place with a phone signal. We walk some more. He gets a signal. He makes a call and ½ hour later, two motorcycles appear to take us to the river crossing. G is a man of his word…he said he take me, so he does. Leaving Augustine to guard his truck, he kicks off one driver and tells him to ride with the other driver and my bag, while G will drive me. It is surreal, going from the truck to the back of a bike with G.

The four of us whip down the road and we make it to Bangui, CAR in time. G hands me over to Thelma, who is hosting me tonight. His last words to me are “Mission Accomplished”.

I am sure G is now working under his truck, trying to get that transmission working.

I win the bet.


 


 

Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR) – June 1, 2012

I watch a silent concert take place and it takes my breath away. Lightning, without a sound before or after it, dances across the sky, providing us with a glimpse of the depth and width of the surrounding clouds. Sometimes, the flashes happen vertically and sometimes, it seems the lightning dances horizontally through the layers of black, grey and apparently, white clouds that wrap around the bright. It was awesome and I find myself unable to move as I watch the sky in central Africa.

Tandala, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – June 2, 2012

Expecting some sort of rain to take away the oppressive humidity, I am disappointed, but manage to sleep well enough to feel alive. After an amazing breakfast of yogurt, oatmeal, bananas, and apples (what a surprise that was! I have never seen an apple in the African countries I’ve visited), I am closer to crossing the river into DRC.

Gilbert is late.

He will help me with customs on both sides of the border and he is tied up right now - no matter that he knew I was coming over one week ago. I wait. It is too hot to put on my boots. I sit at 6:45am, sweating in my jeans, t-shirt and bare feet. I limit myself to one sip of water every 15-20 minutes, fearing that I’ll need to ask for too many stops if I fill up with liquid.

We are supposed to leave at 8am so that we can cross the river and start the eight hour journey to Tandala. With two border crossings to take care of, we really want to leave on time. Gilbert shows up at 10:45am.

He takes my passport, which at this point in my life is the most important possession I own. I shadow him like a puppy during the entire process of getting out of CAR. We go to a hut on one side of the river and out of nowhere, a chair is brought for me to sit as I wait for my passport to be returned to me. I see money flashing around as my passport changes hands three times and as Gilbert hires two men to carry my bags to the dugout canoe in which we will cross to DRC. As soon as the process is done, we scramble down a little hill to arrive at the canoe landing place and again, money changes hands with the man in charge of the canoes. He refuses to take one of my bags and in the blink of an eye, Gilbert reaches out and retrieves his money. It happens so quickly, not even the man is aware of what happened until he notices his empty hand. Words get a little heated and I hear over and over that “she is a missionary”. I don’t know at this time that my army duffel bag is a problem. They think I am somehow attached to an army and they don’t want to carry me or the bag across the river. This is a serious problem and money isn’t going to buy me a passage, not with that bag. Minutes pass, words are tossed about and I pretend I am not there. I focus on the river, on the people bathing on one side, covered in white soap bubbles. On the men washing clothes, beating them against rocks and laying them on the sand to dry. On children splashing in the water, smiling and waving when our eyes meet.

At last, a head motion indicates that the bag and I can get into the canoe. We move across an almost still river, put-putting across an international boundary where every day live happens.

Yellow-shirted police stand on the other side barely acknowledging our presence as they balance their old Kalashnikovs in their hands. Once again, I follow Gilbert closely as he carries my passport to another hut, but this time in Zongu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). My bags are thrown into the back of a pickup truck full of water jugs which are apparently going to Tandala with me. I notice that the army bag is packed tightly beneath the jugs, which means the border police do not know to check or confiscate it. Without a word to me, officials take notes from my passport. Eyes look at me but no words are spoken. Twenty minutes of pen scratching and casual glances later, I tuck my passport into my bag and climb into the truck.

I cannot believe the truck in which we will be traveling actually works! It is held together by wires and cables and screws and things of that sort. I settle into the front seat by Gilbert and prop my feet up on my backpack, with two bottles of water beside me, one bag of snacks (boiled eggs and bread) and two long baguettes on top of me. Behind me, separated by the window and the end of the cab, on top of suitcases and water jugs, sits Zambe and Solongue. Zambe is the deaf “mechanic” and Sonongue is simply hitching a ride. What a ride it turns out to be!

We bob and weave. Our entire bodies levitate as we get airborne because we don’t see a hole in time. We go through huge holes filled with water. We drive through long tough grass when we need to pass huge trucks broken down by too many craters.

Gilbert and I manage to practice my Lingala and I teach him some English words before we break down for the first time. Zambe and Gilbert speak with their hands in a language that is their own. I get out of the truck to take some photos and Zambe removes the cover of my seat, where he reaches to find some cables tied together with a plastic bag. Apparently, we have a short circuit and the bags are not doing their job well enough, so he grabs some handy electric tape and in no time, has the cable securely taped up. This process is repeated three times at different parts of the cable. The cables are crammed back down into the seat and the battery is jumped. The battery is behind my chair because they don’t want it stolen at night.

We rattle on for a while and I notice that with quite some frequency, the rattle becomes a loud thunk, thunk, thunk. When Gilbert notices the sound, he quickly turns the wheel to the right and the sound stops. Sometimes, he gets engrossed in his thoughts and I, in my mind, say “turn the wheel, turn the wheel”. When he does, we are left with only the regular rattle of a car held together with spit and glue.

The second time we break down, it is simply a matter of adding water to the truck. I decide to take a potty break so I step into the tall grass that edges the road. It is thick and hard on my arms, but I push through. Two steps in and I can’t see the road at all. Making sure no one sees me, I take four steps. When I emerge, I almost get bowled over by a cyclist who is so surprised to see a white person coming out of the grass, he almost falls.

We start our journey again.

A new noise is heard above the rattling and the thunk, thunk, thunk. It is the sound of something dragging and then, there is no more new sound. We stop to see what happened and hear a far-away shout. Through my camera lens, I see a man running towards us, carrying a large curved piece of metal. Gilbert meets him half way and accepts the piece of the car which has fallen. He can’t be bothered to reattach it because we are behind schedule, so he crams it in between the water jugs. While he pays the man for his trouble, Zambe is happily and lustily whacking the bottom of the truck with a heavy hammer. What he is trying to accomplish is impossible to determine, but after five or six minutes of intense pounding, he emerges with a large smile and pronounces us ready to resume the trip.

The sky turns dark in front of us and I learn the words for rain (bula), lightning (kake) and thunder (ebeti). I worry about Solonge, Zambe and the bags in the back of the truck, as there is no covering. I pray for the air to cool down but for the rain to be kept at bay. I should have been praying for the car because at that moment, we get our first flat tire. Because I have a flashlight, I am able to assist Gilbert while Zambe takes care of other parts of the car that need attention. We are on our way soon enough, but the sky is dark.

The rain is holding off.

They air is not as muggy.

I crack a hard-boiled egg and peel it outside the window. We hit a large puddle and my hand and egg are covered in mud. I imagine my egg turned red because my hand was red when I wash it hours later. I consider the consequences and decide that since it rained recently, since no humans bathe in the mud, and since I am hungry, the egg is edible. I allow it to dry, brush off the mud and two of us share an egg.

The villages we pass are now shadows broken by tiny fires built inside the round huts. I hear children and adults singing at a distance and soon, then, the sound of a guitar. Village to village, music is sung and the evening is magical. I am glad we are breaking down because I am seeing Congo as it is in the dark. The simple pleasure of singing together – 30-40 voices at a time – is shared by many here and I am enchanted. I want the evening to continue, for the peace I feel to not end. I want my family to enjoy this time with me and I keep them in mind as each village passes by us as we make our way.

After leaning animal names, I am now learning the words for big (monene) and small (moke).

I hear a strange sound, like the sound of a lot of air rushing out of something. I practice my lingala and ask Gilbert if the problem this time is monene. He smiles and says “yes, it is, monene – it is big”. He keeps driving, trying to find a village where we can stop. When we arrive, I get out of the truck once more, but he insists that I stay put and eat some dinner. He scrounges in the back of the truck and produces a pan of fish, giving it to me with instructions to eat well. It is dark and I can’t see what I am eating, but it is delicious. We all eat as some village magician sets to work on our tire. Since we have no working replacement, they somehow conjure a way to fix the least damaged tire. Tomorrow, in the light, I will see if duct tape is part of the solution. Between the village man, our deaf mechanic and Gilbert, they communicate in the dark and the fixed tire is put in place. We share our fish and bread. At 11:34pm I recognize the next village and feel at home. I make out Tandala

Hospital in the dark.

All is well.

June 3, 2012 – Tandala Hospital

Today is a lazy day and I sleep until 7:30 because I am tired. Of course, there is company waiting to say hello before I ever open my eyes and I feel lazy when I finally appear. After a breakfast of coffee and cookies, Rachel and I ponder if we want to attend an ordination celebration, which I know will take at least four hours and will be totally in Lingala. While I am not crazy about the idea, I am willing to go. At the last minute, a government person shows up, asking for my passport. He states I must pay some money, now that I am in Tandala. I have paid for a visa. I have paid two villages back. I am forced to pay again. The decision is made for us that we are to stay at the guesthouse because it is too late to go to church.

I read.

I nap.

I catch up on my water drinking.

I hold a meeting with doctors and PEASIT (social workers who work with HIV+ children) to determine the division of labor, how best to communicate with everyone here and to determine tomorrow and Tuesday’s activities.

Walk away not knowing if the meeting is successful.

June 4, 2012 – Tandala Hospital, Tandala Health Zone and road to Gemena

The morning starts at 4:00am with a thunder and lightning storm like no other. It is gorgeous and the sight beyond my window is a blur. The pounding of the rain on the roof is deafening and the hot earth gives up its steam as it inhales the wet. I lay in bed listening and feeling the rain as the wind shifts and bit of it comes through the net that keeps mosquitos out in the open and away from me. These droplets startle me from time to time, but feel good. I wonder how this storm will affect our travels to Gemena later on as I time seconds between thunder and lightning.

Rachel and I make our way to Dentist Bofio’s home, as he’s invited us to breakfast. He announces that he has tuna to celebrate my arrival and with a flourish, produces a packet of tuna a friend of his left behind many days ago. Rachel produces McDonald’s packets of mayonnaise from her purse and I prepare the tuna salad for a breakfast sandwich. This, with tea, officially starts our day.

I meet with doctors and discuss plans. Dreams. Thoughts. Ideas. At noon I am ready to leave. My stomach lets me know I must eat soon. By 1:00pm, I am not concentrating well on a story told by someone, but try to focus. Soon enough, Frank walks me to the guesthouse where I whip up a strange lunch of macaroni and cheese, a white garlic/tuna sauce, leftover rice with beans and eggs, and pineapple. People always drop by for lunch, breakfast, dinner. We share this wild lunch and laugh.

I sit behind Bamusa on a motorcycle and we follow Deolo and Filo to community gardens boasting beautiful corn. The wind whips us as we ride and people stare at the white woman on the back of the bike. They smile and wave and I wave back. It is funny to see them take a second glance once they realize the second rider is not black.

Children come out of the woodwork when my camera makes its appearance and soon, the space in front of a hut is crowded. I am surrounded by smiling, touching children. I take photos and show them. They squeal with laughter and mamas come out to see what the commotion is about. Without a word, the mamas step into a hut and return with a sleeping baby and they, too, want a photo. I look at these moms and see myself – I want my children to be remembered. I like a swept home. I want my children to be fed, to be happy, to be alive.

The gardens are gorgeous and I am so happy we visited. I want to do more.

Walking from a garden to the motorcycles, we hear that Rachel is on her way in a truck, ready to pick me up and take me to Gemena. We meet her part way and I scrunch into the front seat with Gilbert and Rachel. We laugh and laugh the four hours from Tandala to Gemena. Last year, it took one and a half hours. This year four hours. The rains have destroyed the road and it is hard to go anywhere fast. I try to imagine how trucks will bring the labor beds to Tandala, but I leave that to God because the problem is that big.

Rachel tells Gilbert “whenever Tanya is around, I laugh the most”. This makes me happy.

One thing I know: if we can’t laugh while in the middle of terrible poverty, absolute hopelessness, and hunger, we will cry. We find reasons to laugh and we hold on to them, making the kilometers pass more quickly.

The moon is high and perfectly round. I ask questions. Rachel translates and Gilbert answers. I learn so much tonight.

June 5, 2012 – Gemena and Elykia Center

My grandmother turns 95 today. Happy day to a woman I admire immensely, who has taught me through her life and faith. When you meet your Maker face to face one day, my Yeya, He will be so proud of you and will say “well done, well done”.

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Harrisburg, PA – left home at 2:30pm – May 30th, 2012

London, England – May 31, 2012 (1:27pm EST, 6:27pm here)

There’s a certain excitement that starts in my belly and moves up to my neck and finally to my face, where I feel a stupidly large smile forming. While I’ve known I am returning to Africa for quite a long time now, it is only when I actually hand over my passport to be stamped and am welcomed to a new country that I know I truly am returning. Right now, I am sitting in Heathrow airport in London, recalling the many flights I’ve taken through this city both as a single person and later, married, travelling with Eric and the kids.

Costa Café is still here – my meeting place with other International Volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, with whom I worked in Eastern Europe, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Portugal a few years back. I feel the same excitement I felt then…my waiting grounds where I’ll board a plane which will take me to a place where the foods, smells and air are different. I can’t wait to return to Congo, Kenya and Zimbabwe...I have friends there I want to see again, favorite lodgings I’ve missed and children who I want to see – have they grown? Are they doing well in school? What has changed for them in the past year? What do we need to do to help them get through the next one with hope, health and dignity?

My eyes are a bit bleary from lack of decent sleep and they sting a little. I hope this means that I will sleep deeply during the next flight. Two flights down, two to go (and a long drive) until I reach my first intended destination, Tandala Hospital. There, I will unload a large army duffel bag chock full of sutures (I wonder what customs thought when they x-rayed that bag?), gloves, water filters, and other needed supplies. Can’t wait – seeing the doctors when they receive these items is like seeing Christmas through the eyes of a three-year old.

I love it.

Nairobi, Kenya sitting in a plane to Bangui – June 31, 2012

My dream of sleeping in the plane ride from Kenya to CAR has fallen to the wayside, as I was seated by a 2-year old whose mother didn’t believe in paying attention to. With no toys, books, or someone to talk to, the little guy thought it would be fun to poke me and shake me when he even got the hint of sleep coming over me. If I ignore him, he kicks.

The mom looks tired and it seems she’s using this plane ride as a personal vacation – one where she is continuously putting on new makeup and where she is straightening her crown. Yes, I kid you not…she is wearing a crown. The gold-colored and pearl crown is in stark contrast to the incredibly tight leopard pants and tiger print shirt she is wearing. Maybe she thinks she is the queen of Africa? Don’t know, but what I do know is that this cute little prince here is going to start to annoy me pretty soon. Wonder if I can offer him a Benadryl?

Bangui, Central African Republic – June 1, 2012

It is 4:53pm in Bangui and I’ve been here since 1pm. It was a long trek to get here! I left Harrisburg right on time, which allowed me to make my 45 minute connection in Chicago. From there, off to London where I had a 12 hour layover. Then, to Nairobi, with a 45 minute connection to Bangui. I had no idea that I’d have to stop in Cameroon on my way to CAR, though! That was a bit of a shocker. But, I finally made it to CAR and was met by Thelma once I got through customs. She is lovely and has graciously opened her home to me. Her home is simple, but clean and secure. It is in a compound which includes schools for children as well as pastoral school for French-speaking nationals from over Africa. I feel comfortable here, even as I swelter.

It seems that I didn’t bring my capris with me, so tomorrow will be another day of wearing jeans that really have no business being worn again. But, Thelma warned me that pants will be better than a skirt tomorrow as I have a 12 hour drive in a pick-up truck and I will be appreciative of the pants if and when we get stuck in a hole on our trip down to Tandala Hospital. So, I’ll bathe tonight and air out my jeans and they will be on me again tomorrow. I am so grateful for the clean t-shirts, socks and underwear I have along and for the fact that I will be able to bathe. That is always a nice thing after two days of travel. I know I need a bath in a bad way.

Tomorrow will start with a short drive to “the beach” – some place close to a river, where I’ll have to do customs into Congo (DRC). A man named Gilbert will walk me through the process and I am told he will not take any lip from anyone, so I am hopeful that my duffel bag of medical supplies will make it through without a hitch. I have granola bars ready, just in case a guard needs a snack, though. I have found over and over again that a little kindness followed by some food (m&m’s, granola bars, beef jerky, etc) goes a long way. So, I am ready!

Oh, wow! A class is about to start at the seminary and they are starting to sing. It is amazing! Just mind-blowingly beautiful singing is coming through the open door (too darn hot to close anything) and windows.


 


 

While no one has found a cure for AIDS, there are scientifically validated preventative and palliative treatments for it. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) significantly delays the onset of AIDS in people living with HIV and prevents HIV+ pregnant or breastfeeding women from passing the disease onto their children. Contraceptives greatly reduce the chances of transmission during intercourse, and infant circumcision has a similar effect in the long term. These interventions work. We know that.

Part of the problem in scaling them up in AIDS-ravaged countries, however, is cultural and political denial, a blank refusal on the part of societies and, less often, governments to acknowledge the severity or even existence of the HIV/AIDS crises. Unfortunately, because HIV spreads through sex, something very private, and then lays dormant for years after transmission, it is easier to reject the causal link between HIV and AIDS. Moreover, because AIDS destroys the immune system but does not finish its victims off, denialists try to attribute deaths from AIDS to tuberculosis or other common diseases, which set in with ease after AIDS has removed the body of its defenses.

For an example of a government’s refusal to accept HIV as a cause of death, take the South African government pre-2009. Though the AFCA does not happen to work in South Africa, in the 2000s President Thabo Mbeki took to the extreme a pattern of denial that persists on a smaller and somewhat tamer scale elsewhere in Africa, including in the four countries in which we work. In South Africa, despite the near doubling of children’s AIDS prevalence between 2001 and 2007, the 7.7% increase of the prevalence rate during the same period, and more AIDS cases than in any other country but India, Mbeki consistently renounced the link between HIV and AIDS. Spurning civil society groups such as the impassioned Treatment Action Commission, he refused to spend government funds on ART, maintaining that the medicine was a waste. One Harvard study concluded that his negligence cost South Africa 300,000 lives.

In 2009, things changed abruptly. Anti-AIDS campaigner Jacob Zuma won the South African presidency, reversing Mbeki’s policies soon thereafter. Zuma actively and publicly sought to reduce the incidence of HIV. His efforts paid off. By 2011, 95% of HIV+ pregnant women were taking ART pills, preventing mother-to-child transmission. Moreover, Zuma’s government lowered the requirements for receiving ART—a moderate CD4 count (a measure of immune-system strength) of 350 rather than 200, at which point the prospective patient is already suffering in the clutches of the disease. Despite these changes, the tide of transmission still outweighs the government’s efforts. Prevalence rates continue to climb, but at a slower rate (3%) than during Mbeki’s presidency. In restricting, but not stopping, the spread of HIV, the South African government has saved many, many lives.

Obviously, as the case of South Africa demonstrates, lack of willingness on the part of African leaders to face AIDS does not fully explain why the disease persists. Another large part of the problem lies in the fact that, though the price of ARV has dropped in the last decade in response to loosening patent monopolies on the medicine, African governments seldom have the funds to provide treatment for all who need it. South Africa is by far the wealthiest country in Africa, and, even after election of Zuma, it still has not achieved full coverage. Nevertheless, denial is an important facet of this extraordinarily complex global health crisis. To understand why AIDS persists, we must understand why in some settings it goes unacknowledged and how we can work to encourage openness and educate Africans (and ourselves!!!) about this very real threat.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15854793

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/26/aids-south-africa

World Health Organization Statistics

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Without a doubt, the global HIV/AIDS pandemic is a multifaceted tragedy. Many Americans may view AIDS primarily as an unfortunate consequence of individual choice, a disease whose effects are regrettable but mainly limited to those who have ‘chosen’ to engage in unprotected sex. But AIDS has terrible consequences that reach far beyond the physical discomfort and subsequent deaths of immediate victims. In addition to causing extreme physical suffering for victims and severe emotional trauma for loved ones left behind, AIDS brings down the livelihoods of entire communities and the productivity of entire nations, especially in developing nations such as those in which we serve (Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo). AIDS does not merely affect those who have it; it is bad news for everyone, and citizens of developing countries seldom have the resources to acquire adequate treatments for it. This means that we, as first-world citizens who possess a dramatically disproportionate share of the world’s resources, must make fighting AIDS around the world a strong priority.

To illustrate the destructive effects that HIV/AIDS has on communities, consider the timing of most deaths caused by AIDS. Most victims contract HIV in their teenage years, many well before the end of puberty. This means that, because HIV lays dormant for about six years on average, the virus begins to manifest itself as AIDS during the early-to-mid-twenties, which is probably the least fortunate age possible. Both in the countries we operate in and in many, many others, most men and woman of that age have multiple, young children and are at their zenith in terms of economic productivity. Their families’ well-being and survival often depend on them, and, if they were to stick around, they could lend decades’ worth of support to their communities.

But way too often, young parents cannot stick around. They succumb to a disease they contracted as teenagers, and when they die, they leave behind orphans who require care. In this way, AIDS not only deprives young ones of their parents; it drains resources from communities that are already economically strapped. Grandparents—grandmothers in particular—often take orphaned grandchildren under their wing, but these older caretakers have less energy and more responsibilities (including other kids) than their deceased sons and daughters had. Sometimes, the orphans have no new caretakers at all; no one local is willing to share enough resources to provide for them, and they are left to fend for themselves.

AIDS causes other, more immediate, but equally devastating resource drains as well. Because AIDS weakens the immune system, making normally tolerable diseases lethal but not technically killing its victims, families will often rush AIDS victims to health facilities to treat these diseases when they set in. (That is, IF they are privileged enough to have such care within reach. In Uganda, for instance, health care access is under 70%.) By paying for extensive treatment, both for AIDS and for the disease it has made life-threatening, families willingly throw themselves into poverty, going into debt in hopes of saving their loved one. Many families struggle to repay their debt for many, many years, especially if the AIDS victim died, thereby damaging the family’s ability to work it off.

Finally, funerals can have a similar effect. In many developing countries, such as Kenya, funerals have a much greater cultural importance than in America. Not to hold an elaborate—and expensive—celebration of the deceased’s life is often considered negligent on the part of surviving relatives. In some places, as in some areas of Kenya, religious beliefs reinforce the attitude that expensive funerals are necessary; an improper send-off jeopardizes the deceased’s position in the afterlife. To put together an adequate funeral, then, families will take on debt beyond their means and struggle thereafter to repay it, sacrificing their well-being in the process. Changing these embedded cultural practices is difficult, and in any case, asking people to curb these spending practices may imply a dubious judgment on the part of the West. Who are we to say they should not spend money on their loved ones in this way? The poor, after all, do deserve to be celebrated. In any case, whether they should or not, the fact is that in developing countries around the world, the poor willingly become poorer in order to pay for funerals of loved ones who die of AIDS.

Clearly, AIDS is not just a disease; it is a cause (or an amplifier) of terrible poverty. Delaying the onset and severity of AIDS through interventions such as antiretroviral therapy not only assuages the suffering of the victim, it prevents the family and the community from having to shoulder all of the intertwined emotional and economic burdens associated with the victim’s death. In this way, the AFCA’s work in providing such interventions uplifts entire families and communities. Our question to the reader is, what will YOU do? For more information on ways you can get involved with our work against HIV/AIDS, visit our website, www.afcaids.org, or email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


 


 

What happens when you send a passionate Kenyan to Zimbabwe for a week?

He comes back trained in Foundations for Farming and begins nurturing a one acre plot of overgrown grasses into 48 beds for vegetable production!

Meet Steve (on left, with Katie).

Steve is the clinic Nutritionist and farm manager of the agriculture projects that Mombasa CBHC has started. In January, half of the acre was filled with tomatoes, kale, cilantro, peppers, and cowpea. Providing an under-story are several papaya trees and a few young banana plants. Other native bushes create a natural border around the plot, overseen (and shaded!) by two ancient, towering mango trees. It's become a visual paradise in the dry dusty season.

One of Katie's primary responsibilities in this agriculture project is to help develop a framework for educating a small group of the clinic's clients in gardening techniques and producing vegetables. In other words, she and Steve are learning how to be creative with what they have, limited resources, and re-imagining ways of feeding the clients' bodies with the proper nutrients. Throughout the month, part of the services that CBHC offers is the community of a support group. There is a specific group for guardians of children with HIV/AIDS and this is the target group where Katie is learning and working alongside. So far this month they have had five different training events at three clinic sites and have trained over 40 guardians!

What are they teaching? What plants need to grow, how to create a healthy soil environment for fruits and vegetables, and how to plan for and organize a vegetable bed. The Foundations for Farming training that Steve attended suggests that four key elements are essential to growing food:

  1. Seeding is done on time; 
  2. At a high standard; 
  3. With joy; and 
  4. Without waste.

While at ECHO, Katie also received training on FFF and its been exciting to see others, like Steve, begin to reap the benefits of applying the information they both received. The challenge is, there's more than just a formula for growing food, it's about developing a lifestyle of stewardship. In the upcoming weeks, they'll be visiting the guardians selected for a pilot project and begin to assist them in re-imagining the possibilities for small kitchen gardens using the resources available around their homes. cowpeas breaking earth

In just one month, Steve and Katie have nearly filled the entire acre plot with additional vegetable beds, planting them with cowpea—a great soil amendment, weed suppressant, and nutrient boost for the transplants in the upcoming short rainy season next month.

If home is where the heart is, Katie thinks her heart is in the soil

...well, and on the west coast of Senegal! See note below:

Many of you know that this December, an adventurous, insect-loving, faithful friend (by the name of Noah), proposed to an garden-loving, excited, curly red-head (me!). While assisting with an agroforestry project in western Senegal, Noah 's been collecting African insects, carrying seaweed by the bucketfuls for mulch, and developing another love in his life—that of tree regeneration! If you'd like to read of some of his experiences so far, visit http://arktick.blogspot.com . Katie and Noah are looking forward to sharing their african experiences in the same country in a few months when they both return from their assignments!


 


 

It's no secret, the busy pace of life in Mikindani: the shops aligning the main street, the daily football game around the six o'clock hour, the constant patter of footsteps up and own the stairs, or the swishing of water as it is splashed in an artistic manner—at the mercy of the mothers' hands downstairs. Dust becomes a cosmetic in this town, accompanied by daily perspiration. The heat is up! It's warm, its humid, and it's tropical. Yes, tropical; mangoes fill the fruit shops accompanied by pineapples and avocados, while banana trees dot the roadside. Colorful congas (designed material wrapped around the waist like a skirt) fill the streetscape and there is movement, music, business, and life – day in and day out.

Summary of New Assignment

This place has become my new home! It's called Mikindani. Just across the causeway from Mombasa Island, Mikindani is 'home base' for a series of community based health clinics throughout Mombasa island and the surrounding mainland villages. Its urban and bustling, no doubt. As an intern with AFCA (www.afcaids.org), I have joined the efforts of a community organization known as Community Based Health Care, (CBHC) Mombasa, to work on their agriculture project for children with HIV/AIDS. It's been exciting! CBHC provides many vital services to not only Mikindani, but eleven other villages in the surrounding area. Through support groups, education, health services, and now agriculture, many children and adults with HIV/AIDS are being treated, encouraged, and are moving out of poverty. My role is to assist the Nutritionist with trainings, for children served through the clinic, in gardening and small-scale agriculture techniques, while digging, transplanting, and imagining possibilities in the CBHC garden. (More to come next month!)

Transportation Here and There

One aspect I love about traveling is how diverse (and creative!) people are when they want to get from place to place. Foot, bicycle, horse, train, stilts, bus, car, camel, elephant, tuk tuk (3 wheeled tiny vehicle)...then there's the Kenyan matatu (van). Often filled to their maximum capacity, the matatus in our city are fast, colorful, music boxes that rewrite where the road goes and when you can travel on it. In other words, the get people from place to place but often with abrupt, creative stops along the way! It can be fun to ride, once you know the routes. Until then, though, I think I'll hold on tight! It will be my primary form of transportation in and out of the garden and surrounding community (besides by foot!)

A Familiar Miracle

The Project Coordinator at CBHC is a very peaceful, articulate, caring Nun from one of the local Catholic Parishes; her name is Sister Veronica. This week I had a chance to visit the farmland where CBHC has started to cultivate a larger portion of land. We stopped to visit the Ministry of Agriculture on our way and I noticed... a moringa tree! We asked the representative within if he knew anything about it and he didn't, but mentioned that a lady comes to harvest the leaves every once in a while. I smiled to myself because I had just spotted another tree along the road and had begun to explain its benefits to Sister Veronica on the way. I plucked a few leaves and tasted them and turning to Sister Veronica, hoped she would taste them too. (Curious about moringa too? Here's some insight from ECHO)

Then, one morning later this week, Sister Veronica called for me from her office window, “Kate, come to me for a moment” in a gentle Kenyan accent. She had a visitor within. The visitor was another Sister who introduced herself as 'one who knows about moringa!' She started sharing her personal experiences with it – her father was sick with TB, he consumed ½ spoon of moringa in his porridge three times a week and within a month, his health had improved. How excited this Sister was to speak about moringa! Her face was brightened, as the experiences she shared, you could tell, motivated her to share this knowledge with others.

Sister Veronica is convinced. She wants to start planting it this weekend. I feel positively about this momentum, too, as it could become a great asset to what is available for treating children that suffer from compromised immune systems, plus, it holds the potential to be an asset to the micro-enterprise options available for many people whom CBHC serves.

I will be in touch soon -

~ Katie

As is often the case, the words of the psalmists often bring encouragement through times of transition. Perhaps these will be for you as well...

Many are they who say of me,
"There is no help for him in God." Selah.
But You, O Lord, are a shield for me,
My glory and the One who lifts up my head.
I cried to the Lord with my voice,
And he heard me from His holy hill.
Selah.


 


 

We write grant requests all the time and from time to time, we receive great news of having been given one. Grants are hard to come by! But, the One Days Wages grant comes at a perfect time for us. It is a matching grant, which means that ODW will give $12,035 to AFCA if people donate the same amount to us.

With that in mind, please consider making a donation today at our project page on ODW's website. 100% of donations will be given to AFCA, so everything about this grant is excellent. And, of course, we will use 100% of the funds we receive directly for the kids. We will do what we said we will do. No questions asked.

Please support this initiative so that we can receive the matching grant! And, share with many, please.

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I read an article the other day that stirs hope in the fight against AIDS. I’ve summarized it here and trust that you, too, will be encouraged.

According to a December 20, 2011 article by Mallory Clarkson at www.londoncommunitynews.com, The University of Western Ontario announced that they are ready to begin human clinical trials for an HIV vaccine. The vaccine was developed using a killed whole virus strategy which is a different approach than was used in three failed human trials from 2003-2009.

In January 2012, the first phase of testing is scheduled to begin. During this phase 40 HIV-positive volunteers will enter the trial and the vaccine’s safety will be the central focus. The second phase will involve 600 HIV-negative volunteers who are at high risk for HIV infection. This part of the trial will measure immune responses. During the third and final phase, 6,000 HIV-negative volunteers in the high-risk category for HIV infection, will measure the efficiency of the vaccine as compared to a non-vaccinated group.

There is much anticipation that this vaccine will be successful. If it is, it will provide much hope to a world that desperately needs hope in the face of HIV/AIDS. It will be important for us to remember, though, that a vaccine is not a cure and millions of people will continue to need treatment for HIV and AIDS well into the future.


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The end of the year is days away and I find myself reflecting on the past year. The American Foundation for Children with AIDS, with the help of many generous people like you, has helped thousands of children in 2011. Here are just a few of the things we’ve accomplished in 2011.

  • Over five million doses of antibiotics were provisioned to PIDC, our partner in Uganda that serves children with HIV/AIDS through its network of a hospital and 75 clinics.
  • Fifty-two beautiful girls with HIV/AIDS are receiving love and medical care from a caring staff at St. Therese’s orphanage in Kenya and AFCA has provided nutritional support to them during a year of drought.
  • Nutrition by Prescription was provided for St. Mary’s Mission Hospitals in Elementita and Nairobi, Kenya. This allows patients who are weakened by malnourishment to quickly gain weight in order to be able to take the medicine they need in order to recuperate.
  • Two 40’ container of medical supplies and equipment were shipped to our partners in Kilembe Mines, Uganda, greatly improving their resources and enabling them to increase the quality and quantity of their service to children with HIV/AIDS in their communities.
  • One container of medical supplies and hospital beds, along with school supplies for 800 children was sent to our partner in Papoli, Uganda. The children were overjoyed when they were given their own school bags full of supplies and the clinic was excited to exchange bad beds for good ones, and to have new sutures, needles, gloves, nursery kits, and a myriad of other supplies at their disposal.
  • Nutritional support was sent in the form of an oat-based, highly nutritious porridge to both the Mombasa and the Voi projects in Kenya. During this year of famine, these containers of food have proven to be life-saving for over 6000 children and guardians.
  • Many families (numerous with children as head-of-household) in Zimbabwe received nutritional support this year. In addition, our partner, ZOE, is working with select families to resource them with chickens and goats so that they can produce their own food and eventually help other families in their communities do the same. AFCA has provided funds for the livestock given to the orphan families.
  • We visited Tandala Hospital and sixteen associated clinics in the Democratic Republic of Congo to further assess their needs and research options for getting a shipping container of medical supplies to them in 2012, as well as solar panels and all the components needed to provide electricity to each clinic and the hospital. In the meantime, we resourced them with antibiotics and look forward to doing much more in 2012.
  • We visited every one of our programs, ensuring that the children who are in our care are indeed, receiving what was promised them. In every case, we walked away happy to see how well the children are faring and knowing that the programs are working as they should.As I think about 2012, it promises to be a challenging year. International support for HIV/AIDS programs in Africa dropped significantly over the past couple years. As a result, many of our partners experienced the loss of aid and their budgets are stretched thin and some must decrease their support and care for children with HIV/AIDS.

So far, AFCA has been able to maintain our level of support to our partners, but we are also experiencing a decrease in financial support, which if not reversed, will mean a loss of services to children with HIV/AIDS within our programs. This will lead to higher levels of illness and ultimately, to death.

Please consider making a generous donation to the American Foundation for Children with AIDS, or become a monthly donor so that the children in our programs continue to receive care. Thank you!

Click here to make a donation.

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