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Last Tuesday–On nationwide television with Dutch Minister of Education Ronald Plasterk

Last week was one of those weeks that felt like one long party. The kind during which you take a nap, wake up and dance some more. I found out on Monday that Tuesday afternoon I’d be on nationwide television, participating in a talk show with the Dutch Minister of Education Ronald Plasterk, as well as a criminal journalist and a fundraiser for a burn-victim foundation. Quite a mixed bag. Andries Knevel, the interviewer, has his own weekly show, Het Elfde Uur, and he has a bit of a reputation for making his guests squirm. The program went well, better than I could have hoped, considering it was in Dutch and I had to be smart and pretty, all at the same time.

The reason for my invitation was that December 1 was World Aids Day, and I have just had a children’s book about aids published in Dutch.

If you want to see the actual broadcast, then click here, then click on the Video button with the eye. My part of the interview starts about halfway during the show.

For the trivia buffs among us, watch out for the man sitting behind me. (I think he was hoping to sell a fishing net during the show.) And the woman sitting behind Mr. Knevel is none other than my publisher, Aukelien Wierenga. The man sitting behind Mr. Knevel is Matthijs van Pijkeren, my TEAR contact and go-to man.

For more (Dutch) info about Dans over de zee and the wwkidz series for teens, click on

Here’s a (rough) English translation of the interview– Mr. Knevel introduced me by asking if I really had sold 5 million books. When I said yes, he asked were they all sold in The Netherlands? And I got to answer that my books have been translated into 50 languages. Then he added that we would be talking about my new teen novel, Dans over de zee, and about aids children in Africa, which I had visited often.

Then, halfway during the show, the interview really got underway: AK: Mrs. de Graaf, you write children’s books, about extremely serious problems, am I right? AdG: Yes. AK: About aids in Africa . . . AdG: Aids in Africa . . . AK: You’ve been to Africa several times. AdG: Yes, in the last 12 years, about 14 times . . . I’ve seen all of sub-Saharan Africa. AK: While researching aids. AdG: For aids, and also for child soldiers. AK: And can you tell us something new about that? We’ve been having an awareness campaign all week. This week we’ve been raising funds, it’s aids week. Saturday is World Aids Day, I think. AdG: 1 December. AK: Yes, that’s Saturday. Is there, now, anything new to say? AdG: Anything new to say? Yes, I think people need to become aware of the aids issue, and many parents want to protect their children from this. . . . AK: There? Or here? AdG: Here. In The Netherlands. AK: Oh yeah? AdG: Yes. I think a lot of people say, okay, that’s all so far away and I want to protect my children from this misery. But this is exactly why we’ve written this series of books, World Wide Kidz. It’s a tool for raising awareness among children in The Netherlands about children in developing countries. AK: So if we want that, that our children become aware of the problems among children in Africa, in developing countries, or Africa. . . . AdG: Developing countries. AK: So, that’s what we think. That’s what you think. AdG: Yes, I think it’s extremely important. The more children who engage in issues concerning others, the more compassion and understanding they learn, and the more tolerant our society will become in the future. AK: Now you’ve also contributed to another book, called Positief, and in here you write about your latest trip to South Africa, and you say that afterwards you had a very hard time. That you really didn’t know how to cope, despite even all your other travel experiences. AdG: That’s right. Yes. AK: What was it that crippled you like this? AdG: Well, I have seen a fair amount. I’ve even stayed in a refugee camp with Congolese refugees. But this time last year I went to Zimbabwe and South Africa to study the aids issue. I interviewed many aids orphans, child psychologists and people who work with aids orphans. I was prepared for a lot of things, but for me the most difficult thing was that here you have an aids orphan, a child who’s lost not just his father, but also his mother. He doesn’t even get the opportunity to process his grief, then he must take on the burden of responsibility for his little brothers and sisters. They have to come up with the school fees, otherwise they’re dismissed from school. And then on top of everything else, because they are such a vulnerable segment of the population, aids orphans are often sexually abused. AK: They’re raped. AdG: They’re raped. And I’ve met children, a little girl, she was 9 when she was raped–and now she’s 12–and infected with hiv, because of that rape. AK: And that’s when you couldn’t find your way anymore? AdG: You could say that. It was . . . too much. And I saw, literally, no hope for these children. The children have so much courage. They say . . . they always want to talk about football. They know everything about Ajax and Feijenoord. Every child has a dream. So this book is based on the true stories of children I met. But it’s all been combined into one composite character. And Promise–that’s his name–he has a dream of becoming a surfer. AK: This is a book, it’s going to be presented to a school tomorrow, in The Netherlands, about a boy who has to care for his father and mother. His father is dead, his mother dies, he has to care for his siblings, his little sister gets raped, comes down with hiv, as well . . . and eventually he becomes a great surfer, but there’s a huge amount of sadness in this book. I’ve read it and I know a fair amount about aids, and it really touched me, this book. AdG: Good. AK: No, really. AdG: But that’s the point. That’s really the point. I believe that people’s hearts open much wider for fiction than for a documentary. And look, people say there are 16 million aids orphans in Africa, but 16 million–that’s the population of The Netherlands. But that doesn’t say very much. Yet when you come face to face with a victim–with one child–the story or voice of one child, that’s what really touches you and then I think, that’s when you reach the point of being willing to do something. AK: And that’s the point. This is a children’s book, it’s being offered to a school, and in The Netherlands schools should become more involved in raising the awareness of children about aids in Africa–and not in terms of numbers, but on a human level. AdG: On a human level, and in terms of story, through the individual stories of children. I worked on this book together with Columbus Publishing, and three aid organizations in The Netherlands, Woord en Daad, Zoa Refugee Care and TEAR. TEAR was my sponsor. And in South Africa and Zimbabwe I stayed with several of TEAR’s partner organizations. And they’ve put together a lesson pack. . . . AK: Right, here it comes. Go ahead. Because the minister of education’s here tonight. AdG: Now? Is that all right? This lesson pack is hot off the press. And it’s for Dans over de zee. Every school can order one. It contains a board game, a poster contest, an internet quiz. . . . AK: And this book? AdG: And this book. AK: It’s a beautiful book. AdG: Thank you. Thank you very much. AK: It really touches you, this story. AdG: Thank you. I was able to process all my problems, and my being blocked, through writing it, so this book has also helped me. AK: Okay, give this to the minister. AdG: So I’d like to hand this over to you as a symbolic gesture. Min (Minister of Education Ronald Plasterk): Thank you. I think it’s very good that you’ve done this. AK: What is your reaction? Min: Actually, I think it’s excellent that you do this, that you do this work. May I look inside? AdG: Yes. Of course. AK: May I ask just one more question of you? AdG: Yes. AK: I started to hate men . . . the more I learned about aids. AdG: Hmm. . . . AK: Because they use women, they abuse women, they use a lot of women, they want unsafe sex, they don’t want to use condoms, they even want dry sex–I really start to hate my gender. AdG: Well, but it’s not so black and white. Listen, I don’t want you to think that this book is full of misery. . . . AK: No, it’s an optimistic book. AdG: It’s a story about hope, set against the background of aids survival. But it’s also part of the culture. There’s a culture, especially in the bush in some sub-Saharan countries, where people believe the myth that if you have sex with a virgin, then you’re cured of aids. So that’s why children are now being targeted. . . . AK: Because young girls are virgins, and that’s why they’re raped by the whole neighborhood. . . . AdG: A neighbor lady brings a meal by in the afternoons and her husband stops by at night to collect payment. That’s what I was told. AK: Now, your reaction, and then we’ll go on to John van den Heuvel. Min: It’s just terrible. I think there are entire villages where a third or a quarter of the population are infected with hiv/aids, and eventually die from it. It’s the plague, it’s just like when the black plague hit Europe. AdG: Yes, that’s right. I interviewed a Zulu chief, and he has 500 families under him and he said that indeed, 70 percent of his people are dying. Our generation–people between the ages of 25-50–has more or less died out. Children raise themselves, teenagers raise the little ones, or the grandmothers do it. But the grandmothers are all from Nelson Mandela’s generation and have battled apartheid, while working three jobs in nice houses belonging to whites, and now they have to raise yet another generation, and earn the school fees for them, as well. AK: Okay, thank you for coming.

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