Exactly a year ago today, I left for South Africa and Zimbabwe to research a teen novel on aids survival. What follows is the translation of a Dutch article that appeared in the NGO Tear Fund’s Dutch magazine, “Tegenberichten.” This was to mark the publishing of this teen novel, entitled Dance Upon the Sea. The Dutch title is Dans over de zee. A lot has happened this year. It amazes me that from the trip to the research to the writing (and rewriting) to the translating (thanks to Erik!) to the publishing (thanks to Aukelien!), we have gone one full year. Thank you, everyone, who has helped me on this path. Now let’s celebrate! You’ll find the cover of this new book at the end of the article. Stay tuned for more!
Anne de Graaf writes about aids orphans in South Africa: “The children’s voices are the strength behind the story.”
Anne de Graaf (48), journalist and author of novels and children’s books, doesn’t shy away from the “difficult” subjects. After writing a children’s book about child solders, her latest book for children will appear (in The Netherlands) in November 2007. This one is about, as she describes it, aids survival in South Africa. The title is Dans over de zee (Dance Upon the Sea). The book is part of the educational series for children aged 10-14, called WWKidz. For inspiration and to research this book, Anne visited projects sponsored by Tear Fund (Tear Netherlands). It was no easy book to write, as Anne explains in this interview.
When the publisher went to Anne with the idea of her writing a teen novel about children and aids, Anne was not very enthusiastic. It is not an easy subject for any book, let alone one for children. But her curiosity won out over her reluctance. “I hadn’t been back in South Africa and Zimbabwe for some time,” the author said. “And Tear sent me to these countries in order to see, with the help of their partner organizations, what life there is like, and to talk with people.” In Zimbabwe she discovered a unique situation. “Under the dictatorship of Mugabe, aid organizations have been forced to leave the country. All work in the area of hiv/aids is being done by local organizations, churches and by local people themselves. They have no money and no resources, but in some places, they do have a fantastic network for helping aids orphans. I was deeply touched by what I saw. The churches work together in order to train people and care for children who have lost their parents to aids. For example, there was a youth group in a church where every teenager was responsible for two orphans. He or she made sure they went to school, and that they came home safely, etc.”
Confrontational Although Africa is not unknown territory for the author, this trip became very confrontational. Anne: “What completely shocked and threw me was the fact that so very many aids orphans, boys and girls, were being sexually abused. Some estimates say as many as 85 percent of the orphans are being raped. They live in child-headed households and are completely unprotected, and so, vulnerable. There’s a rumor that sex with a virgin will cure you from aids, so that makes the children targets of sexual abuse. What happens is that a neighbor might bring some food over to the children and that night her husband comes along to claim payment.” The author tried to find stories that disproved this, but could not. “There are no actual statistics about this, but the scale and consequences of aids are enormous,” Anne said. “During my visit to KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, I met with a Zulu assistant-chief, a brave man who told me he spends every Saturday attending funerals. ‘My people are dying,’ he said. He tries to find homes for the children who have become orphans, so that they can have some sort of protection. But when a family has already taken in ten children, you can’t ask them to take any more.”
Reality When Anne returned home at the end of 2006 to The Netherlands, she felt “broken, totally blocked.” Anne: “I couldn’t write, not about anything. And that says something because writing is my way of processing things. I couldn’t stop the tears. Finally I sought professional help in order to process the experiences. I really only wanted to write about hope, and had to discover that it was all right to also write about hopeless situations. I learned to take each shattered piece of what I had thought was this world, look at it as it really is, and describe what I saw honestly.” And that’s how eventually, the book Dans over de zee (Dance Upon the Sea) came into being.
Growing up in South Africa The book she wrote addresses issues broader than just the consequences of hiv/aids. Dans over de zee (Dance Upon the Sea) is a story about growing up in South Africa. What is it like to grow up in a country where poverty, discrimination and hiv/aids are so prevalent? How can children cope? And what gives them hope? The reader sees life through the eyes of Promise, a young, talented, black surfer in South Africa. His “career” is suddenly interrupted by the responsibility of caring for his little brother and sister following the death of his mother. Anne: “It’s a book with information about how aids orphans live, described through the eyes of Promise, a teenager. The term “hiv/aids” isn’t even mentioned anywhere in the story. That’s how it is in reality, how it happened in Zimbabwe and South Africa, too. Hardly anyone ever talks about hiv/aids. Instead, people say someone died from pneumonia, malaria, or tuberculosis. But not from aids. There’s a huge taboo. So what I did in the book, is nothing more than write down what I heard people saying, or not saying.”
In Africa Anne interviewed many people. She listened to aid workers at Tear Fund and their partner organizations, community leaders, chiefs, fathers, mothers, grandparents and children. She found what the children had to say especially important. “The strength behind the story are the children’s voices. I cherish the hope that the next generation can do more than we are and that’s why I’m investing in them.” The enormous scope of the hiv/aids pandemic can easily overwhelm people in the West and leave them feeling helpless. “Don’t,” is Anne’s advice. “Just ask what you can do in a specific case. That might be something very small. The compassion that you feel, God will use.” And sometimes we have no idea of the ripple effect. She said, “In Tanzania I met a child psychologist from Uganda. He was a former child solder, but had won a scholarship once he was free. After he graduated he returned to help the next generation of child soldiers. So with 16 million aids orphans . . . whoever helps one child, may help a hundred.”