A Gift Returned


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So here I am, telling the truth. And if there is no hope, and when people feel the children’s pain because I am no longer trying to protect all of you from the truth, then your hearts can be moved. So I tell the truth—for myself first of all, to heal my own heart.

Only once before have I ever been somewhere with so little hope—in Iraq in 2001, when the Christian teens I met with had no dreams for the future. The girls knew they were destined for prostitution and the boys knew they would serve 5 years from their 17th in Sadaam’s army and come out like animals. This story of despair moved the people who heard it.

Am I a failure because I found no light in every place I visited? No. But I will shine the light on these situations now. And my very telling is a sign of hope, for no longer are these children alone and voiceless, and my stories about them may give rise to others’ hearts opening and finding the courage to care.

What is the truth? Some of the children I met and held and listened to and smelled are dead now. I don’t know which ones, but I miss them. If they’re not dead, they will be soon. I know my 9-year old is being raped over and over again in the dark night. She is alone, abandoned, afraid. Oh sweet heart! My babies—arms flung wide to hold and hug, climbing onto my lap, your hair rough like warm wool against my lips. Where are you now? Who comforts you in the night on that rubbish dump where they found you? Sweet Princess Rachel with eyes warm and dark like a summer night, don’t be in pain. Heal them all. Restore them. Find a cure. My heart is awash with tears.

What do I see? The face of David, scarlet ski cap, grandson of a chief, aids lesions bleeding on his face, writing his songs of love and fright in my notebook. What poets died today? Great men and women—the future of Africa, the flower of African manhood and womanhood. How many Mandelas die today?

South Africa 1 November 2006 I arrived in Durban to humidity and fatigue. They took me out right away that afternoon after the long drive, to rural areas around Pietermaritzburg. I only had time to change my clothes. (See, the green notebook is opening now—page 1. Ah finally.) I called it a journey of hope. It’s all right that I sometimes lost track of hope along the way. The nature of hope is that it is unseen.

The first afternoon Afrikaner Aubrey of ACAT brought me to Ethembeni, Zulu for “Place of Hope.” OK, so here it is at the very beginning of the trip—a place of hope. This hospice is a ministry of Howick Community Church. Here I saw a 36-year old and 47-year old with toothless smiles. One of the caregivers said to me, “Things get bad, bad and bad, but then there’s God.” This was an answer to the first of hundreds of times that I asked the very simple question, “How do you cope?” “Thembeni” in Zulu means trust or faith or hope. I learned here that “good care” means healthy diet+ARVs (aids medication)=life prolonged for HIV+.

Here I saw my first aids patients. The caregiver damp dusted to keep the rooms cleaner. Still, the flies on windows flew circles around our faces like vultures waiting to alight. Raised beds, hopeless young faces. Sores on lips and ankles and elbows, lesions bleeding, smell of rotting flesh, eyes desperate, gaunt faces, cheekbones sticking out. What in their eyes? Pain, a mixture of shame—shame and pain and fear. Yes, fear. Fear of death and pain.

I could do nothing for them. I touched their bony hands, ran my fingers along their long, thin, piano player hands. The sores on their bare feet so painful, they could not walk. I saw two women in one room and two men next door. Smell of the sick. Boxes. Tiles on floor, towels. Fridge. A radio with music and talk. One of the men was 22-year-old Sepo from Lesotho, so there was no family nearby to visit.

(Here on the faceless forum of this blog, I will highlight as I write a roll call of the dead and dying–their names a death knell in my heart.)

Outside the township ran up and down the hills. Red dirt roads wound like snakes along the rows of plastered houses, their silver corrugated roofs shining like square nickels in the sun. House numbers painted on walls-6000. Children waving at us as we drove away from Place of Hope.

How did I feel there? I didn’t feel hopeful, that’s for sure. I had to keep swallowing—I remember that. My first aids victims. I felt very healthy, for one thing. White and healthy. I felt ashamed to be thinking, “But these are only four of the millions.” When I asked why the facility wasn’t larger, Aubrey said because this was all the church could afford. He sort-of blinked at me, like I had asked about something so obvious. The thought still battered me, “What good did it do to help only four people die with dignity and not alone, but comforted?” I knew the answer: for those four people it made a world of difference. Then I remembered Abiyoudi in Tanzania saying that for a refugee with nothing and no one, when one person comes alongside and offers help, it is all they have in the world and makes all the difference between nothing and something, being alone and being comforted. The comfort of strangers. The kindness of strangers. I had a sense that those four patients were the tip of a glacier, the tip of an ice age. In them I see the aids pandemic. In their eyes I see the fear of millions. Their pain, the sores on their feet and elbows–are the wounds of the world.

Yesterday with Corine I spoke of the hopelessness I feel when I look at the big picture, the statistics of 15 million aids orphans, 2/3 of the population HIV+, 80% of the children sexually abused. No hope there. And I can admit that. I’m not letting God down.

But when I tell the stories of individuals—not always, but sometimes—I find threads of hope. And all the aid workers I met said this is how they cope, by focusing on the one child. So Place of Hope exists for the one aids patient. And now there are four.

I don’t want to pretend hope. I don’t want to Photoshop it in where it doesn’t exist. It’s enough to simply describe what I saw and felt and smelled. To report the truth. I’m back to being a reporter.

The truth? I felt confused and in anguish at Place of Hope. I found myself wandering in the Valley of the shadow of death, and the valley stretched farther than the eye could see. I had never felt such vast distances of despair. What was this new war zone I found myself in, where the dead pile up all week, to be buried in a storm of tears on Saturdays like some blighted harvest?

As we drove away from Place of Hope, I knew I could not get my head or heart around what was happening there. So I opened my heart as wide as I could. I focused on every face, listened for the cultural cues, learned a few words of Zulu, determined to be a blessing and encouragement to those I met, and prayed blessings over the heads of children. Deep inside my trust in my own heart and the purpose of this trip grew strong. Many things I couldn’t explain, but I knew I could write about this.

So when we rolled up outside a one-room house and walked down the dust-engraved hill, through drizzle, ducking to enter a dark home, my new resolve shuddered. “Not this, Lord,” my heart cried out. For Aubrey was telling me, even as we picked our way through the garbage to reach the house, that here lived aids orphans and a gogo (Zulu for grandmother), typical of so many child-headed households. I hear Aubrey’s voice still, “The eldest is 12. She is HIV+ because she was raped when she was 9.” I pause to take in the sight of barbed wire fences with spiked tops. Goats and cattle wander between the houses and through the hills. Garbage heaps punctuate the spaces between road and home. A teenage boy holding a bottle of beer staggers past us. His eyes bloodshot and unfocussed, run over me like a strange man’s hands.

As we enter, she sits curled up on the bed, shy, her doe eyes following every movement I make. She and her younger sisters show me their schoolwork, spelling vegetables in English. The 12-year old has top marks on all her pages. She is called Pindile. Her name means “to turn or answer again.” Pindile wants to be a nurse when she grows up. Seven-year-old Pela (short for Philisiwe, which means “health”) wants to be a police officer, unheard of 8 years ago, but now a very real possibility among the new black middle class of this brave South Africa. Little Mabongi dances for me and claps her hands as, at the end, all three girls sing Jesus songs. Even Aubrey joins in. I sit on a wooden stool and hum, my heart exploding. I do the hand motions, afraid for these children, so unprotected. The youngest’s name in Zulu means “thankfulness and repeated thankfulness.” The children dance and clap their hands and sing. I stand and clap, too, my heart beating like a drum. I feel claustrophobic; I can’t breathe, the despair we all deny like the elephant in the room none of us will acknowledge.

On the way out of the township Margaret, our Zulu interpreter, sits in the back of the truck. Aubrey has told me she is HIV+ and willing to talk about it. I bring up the sexual abuse of little Pindile. “Does it happen often?” I ask. Their answers devastate me. Pindile is more the rule than the exception. Margaret says her 7-year-old granddaughter has aids classes in school where they warn her to stay away from boys because they will want to have sex with her. She told Margaret she felt frightened not because of the classes, but because already, boys call to her on the road and chase her as she walks home from school. There are aids classes in school starting at 7 years through high school.

We drive past a soccer field with wooden goal posts and no net. Soccer teams in SA: Chiefs vs. Pirates.

My last visit on this first day is to another crowded home, this one with a main room, containing benches, a table, stove in the corner. Lightning and thunder in fog outside. A woman, many children on the couch. I meet Manbla, which means “power or strength.” Little Manbla has wild hair that stands up straight like electrified cotton. In the back room I meet Sipho (ph=p), which means “gift.” There is a flush toilet behind a door. I duck inside and use it, aware that everyone can hear me. When I emerge, they are smiling. Margaret says they were afraid it wouldn’t be clean enough for me. I smile and say it was just what I needed. The smiles have taken me by surprise because, young Sipho lies in a dark corner on a mattress, two sticks for legs beneath a sheet. Music blares from the neighbor’s house. “Does it bother her?” I ask. The gogo answers there is nothing they can do since they don’t want to anger their neighbors. I remember the benchful of men we passed as we entered this home.

Sipho has sores on her legs. This is full-blown aids. She is dying. She is dead now, as I write this 6 weeks later. Sipho is so thin I can count her ribs. Someone asked me if I wanted to see her body. I said no, thinking it was no way to treat the dying, showing them to strangers like exhibits. But then one of the women said, “You have come all this way to see what aids is doing. How can you go back and describe what you found if you have not looked at what it does?” Confused, ashamed, I nod. Somehow it’s an honor, what they are offering to show me—Sipho’s shriveled young body. I think she is 15. Flesh hanging slack from her collarbone. Facedown on the mattress, her eyes haunted, skin bleached white, dull eyes, scent of sickness, neighbors’ radio screaming, sheet pulled back to reveal bony hips, hanging hands.

“Is she in pain?” I ask Aubrey and Margaret in the truck afterwards. “Yes.”

On November 1 I wrote: It happened on the first day here, my heart already breaking. I kept trying to listen with my heart and look at these people with His eyes. That’s where my heart broke. I saw my Daniel in 22-year-old Sepo from Lesotho, but gaunt and pale and suffering and doomed. The horses of Revelation come out to meet me. This time last year I was in Liberia. There the specter of war haunted everyone I met. Here it is this wretched plague. I feel like those horses in the Bible gallop after my very soul.

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