Yesterday was World AIDS Day. Ten years ago, I don’t know if I knew one person with HIV or AIDS. Today, I don’t go an hour without interacting with someone who has HIV or whose life has been forever affected because of it. And because of that, now my life has become affected by it.
One time, in a village nearby, a boy walked up to me and handed me a tattered envelope. On it was a poem he said he’d written. I’m not sure if he did write it, or if he got it from someone else. But either way, the words haunted me and I’ve kept it ever since. On the envelope it said:
The Cry of an AIDS Orphan
My heart bleeds when I see an adult pass by.
I look in the face, hoping to see my lost father and mother.
Hoping to hear their comforting voices, hoping for a hug.
But nobody has time for me since my parents died.
I have become a scavenger.
I must roam the streets to look for food.
I have nowhere to sleep.
I cannot go to school.
When my relatives take me in I must be beaten because I am naughty.
I must do all the work because I am lazy they say.
I must be given little food because I eat too much.
If I laugh, I am making noise.
If I cry I am not grateful.
When I become a parent, for the sake of my children, I will protect myself from AIDS.
O God, it’s terrible to be an orphan.
People are often misinformed about what the term “AIDS orphan” means. If you are an AIDS orphan, you don’t necessarily have AIDS. You are just orphaned because of AIDS. We have 77 children right now, and while the majority of them don’t have HIV themselves, the majority of them are AIDS orphans.
Of the four babies we’ve had die since September, three of them were on treatment for HIV. That’s the number we usually look at, because after all, it’s those kids that were exposed to HIV in their innocence and lost their lives. Their pain was inherited, and it seems so unfair. But it’s so much bigger than that. AIDS has stripped so many kids of their parents, and in a world as hard as this one, kids need parents.
In the absence of parents, kids look for love and acceptance other places. You don’t have to look hard to find someone offering some version of love and acceptance; there are people just looking for children to take advantage of. Did you know a rumor that is widely believed around here is that sleeping with a virgin will cure HIV? Another rumor is that if you get HIV, sleeping with ten people will cure it.
So you picture these little kids, who grow up without a mother and father, many feeling like leftovers and second rate citizens. They just crave the attention of anyone who’ll give it to them, forgetting all they’ve been taught about HIV/AIDS. And then the cycle continues as a young girl gets pregnant, gets HIV from a man who doesn’t care a thing about her, and then in turn leaves an orphan when she dies of AIDS herself. It’s a mean, mean disease, and it’s leaving millions in its wake.
We can’t cure AIDS yet, and we definitely have a long way to go towards educating young people about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. Sometimes the 77 children we have seem like just a drop in the bucket. But I have to believe it matters because we have to start somewhere. Hopefully, there will be 77 more children out there who believe they are loved, who know God made them for a reason and hasn’t forgotten them, and who will say, along with the boy who gave me that poem, “When I become a parent, for the sake of my children, I will protect myself from AIDS.”