Africa

Save Lives? Yes, You Can.

I am one of the lucky ones. Every few months I travel to Zambia and meet people who are dealing with AIDS. If that seems contradictory, let me explain: Millions of people in the world’s poorest countries now receive drugs that have saved their lives and brought hope to their communities. Instead of seeing people being carried to the clinics, emaciated and weak, I see relatively healthy patients walking to the pharmacy to receive their next month’s supply of medicine. I see men and women who are able to work and care for their children. I see children who are uninfected, thanks to prenatal intervention, or who know that, although they will always be HIV-positive, it is not a death sentence.

Since the start of PEPFAR (The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) five years ago, more than 2 million people have received treatment; millions more pregnant women have been tested and treated to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus. While other countries have also been involved, the U.S. response has been most significant.

Organizations such as World Vision, Food for the Hungry, and Compassion International have also been on the forefront of the work. The Roman Catholic, Christ­ian Reform, Nazarene, and Metho­dist churches, among many others, have all played significant roles.

The change in the last few years is amazing. No longer do funeral processions dominate the roads or lines form for blocks outside clinics. And perhaps most surprising to me is how I, as a U.S. citizen, am treated. Wherever I go, people tell me, “Please thank the American people for sending us the drugs that save our lives.”

I pass on the thanks to you, to the Bush administration, and to Congress, as well as all the churches and nonprofits who have worked tirelessly to provide help to those they may never meet. But I also offer you a challenge.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2009
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With Eyes to See

His name was Richard, the same as mine. I sat inside his meager thatch hut, listening to his story, told through the tears of an orphan whose parents had died of AIDS. At 13, Richard was trying to raise his two younger brothers by himself in this small shack with no running water, electricity, or even beds to sleep in. There were no adults in their lives—no one to care for them, feed them, love them, or teach them how to become men. There was no one to hug them, either, or to tuck them in at night. Other than his siblings, Richard was alone, as no child should be. I try to picture my own children abandoned in this kind of deprivation, fending for themselves without parents to protect them, and I cannot.

I didn’t want to be there. I wasn’t supposed to be there, so far out of my comfort zone—not in that place where orphaned children live by themselves in their agony. There, poverty, disease, and squalor had eyes and faces that stared back, and I had to see and smell and touch the pain of the poor. That particular district, Rakai, is known to be ground zero for the Ugandan AIDS pandemic. There the deadly virus has stalked its victims in the dark for decades. Sweat trickled down my face as I sat awkwardly with Richard and his brothers while a film crew captured every tear—mine and theirs.

I much preferred living in my bubble, the one that, until that moment, had safely contained my life, family, and career. It kept difficult things like this out, insulating me from anything too raw or upsetting. When such things intruded, as they rarely did, a channel could be changed, a newspaper page turned, or a check written to keep the poor at a safe distance. But not in Rakai. There “such things” had faces and names—even my name, Richard.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2009
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