Here’s what I remember—here’s what grips my heart and won’t let me go—the widespread sexual abuse of orphans because they are so vulnerable, and because of the misguided hope that sex with a virgin will cure aids. There. I’ve said it. I’m writing.
South Africa –A nine-year old who was taking care of her sick mother with an 18-month-old brother on her hip and hanging up heavy laundry when she was 7. Now she’s abandoned by that mother who regained her strength and took the baby and ran. The girl lives with her best friend’s mother. Such a sad face. She may be sexually abused by the men we saw near her house. Tears of fear. When I asked her why she cried, she said because she is afraid everyone she loves will die. –An 11-year old who was raped is HIV+ as a result. She sat on the one bed in a one-room shack in what they call a “community” now, the pc term for township. Her sisters showed me their homework while the grandmother sat wearing a ski cap and toothless grin. When I asked the girl what she wants to be when she grows up, she said a nurse. After our questions, she joined her little sisters in singing as they showed me a dance. –Gail with Princess Rachel on her lap. Gail adopts HIV+ babies abandoned on rubbish dumps. Princess Rachel ran a fever the day I visited their home and she curled up on Gail’s lap as we talked about Gail’s broken heart because one of her babies had died a few weeks earlier. –In the rural area I visited outside of Pietermaritzburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal, 70% of the people are HIV+. I spoke to a Zulu assistant chief, with 500 families under him, and his face filled with despair. “Saturdays we have funerals. I spend all day attending them.” –Nearly 15 million aids orphans in Africa now. I was supposed to be there looking for stories of how they cope, how they raise their siblings, how they survive. I found gogos. “Gogo” is Zulu for grandmother. This is the generation raising the children, since my own generation—the 25-50-year olds—are dead or dying. –Smelling rotting flesh in the rooms where full-blown aids tore away lives. The eyes, the gaunt faces, the names, the blankets thrown over bedsores the size of my hand, mattresses on the floor, lips bleeding, lesions and sores, bony hands, fleshless arms, their soft, whispered voices echo through my heart in this valley of the shadow of death.