Watching something like Frontline’s documentary “Endgame: AIDS in Black America” always reminds me that I’m in the minority now, when it comes to HIV and AIDS awareness.
About 5 years ago I went on a trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe. I had been working here in the U.S. with Hoops4Hope – a non-profit that focuses on AIDS/HIV awareness in Africa. When you’re doing work like that on this side (here in America), you know the stats, and you’re helping with fundraisers, and people are donating sneakers – but you don’t really understand the severity of the problems.
It’s not until you touch-down in the townships like Khayelitsha, or you’re working with a group of 200 kids outside of Harare that you fully grasp the kind of conversations one has to have in order to inform 7 and 8 year-olds about AIDS and HIV. It’s shocking to hear the teachers you’re working speaking plainly, and frankly about sex and condoms to kids that haven’t yet reached middle school age.
But then you find out why… I walked about 3 hours through the streets Khayelitsha – a massive shanty town, where houses were often made from scraps, and electricity was stolen from power lines – to an orphanage that housed children ages 3-5… all HIV positive. We brought a sack of oranges, some bananas, and some crackers – because, well what else were we supposed to do?
I mean, if you didn’t know where you were – you’d think it was a your average daycare center: kids running around, laughing, crying, playing. When I showed up, they clambered to hold my hand, or climb me like a gazebo. One of the women taking care of them told me they’d never seen a white person before. Some touched my face and petted me like I was an exotic pet, others ran and hid from me – cackling as I “found” them behind doors and under tables.
After we left, my friend (a local) said I should come back in a year or two and see who’s left… and it crashed down on top of me. These kids were born with HIV. They didn’t have access to the kinds of drugs you need to survive. These kids were not going to survive.
For me, it’s impossible to shake that moment. That realization that a house full of 10 or 15 kids is most likely gone. You figure out in a hurry that the culture of silence and willful ignorance is what creates and epidemic like HIV. In the U.S. – we see that Magic Johnson survived, and after so much publicity in the 90’s we assume that everyone “must know the risks by now.” And yet, every 10 minutes somebody in the U.S. is contracting the virus. Which is terrifying when you consider that it’s totally preventable.
Every now and then a picture of me with those kids flashes on my screensaver – and for a moment the laughter flashes, too. Both too brief.
For more information on Hoops4Hope - head to www.HoopsAfrica.org