Over the past year, I have immersed myself in books about Africa, about AIDS, about developmental work. These are not easy reading. They are heartbreaking. They make me feel ashamed of my world, of my own comfort. But I feel compelled to keep reading, to try to understand, to prepare myself for the day when someone asks me, "why didn't you do anything?" I'm trying to understand what I can do. I'm trying to find somewhere to pin my hope in all the hopelessness.
One of the places for hope is in children. AIDS in Africa has taken a terrible toll on children. Orphans lose their parents, miss out on their educations, go to bed hungry, and are often infected with the virus themselves. But if there is anything that will remind you that Africa is not a lost cause, it's the fact that these children themselves still cling to hope. If they can hope, the least I can do is not shut my eyes to their pain. It's the very least.
Deborah Ellis spent time in Africa collecting the experiences of children for
Our Stories, Our Songs: African Children Talk about AIDS. The book is geared to a young audience, giving youth in Africa a chance to share their lives with their peers in the developed world. It provides a good introduction for kids who want to know more about AIDS and about how their lives might compare to those of children elsewhere in the world.
As an adult reader, what struck me was the simplicity of the stories. The kids Ellis interviewed speak plainly about their lives. That's the tragedy and miracle of kids; they only know what they know.
For instance, Namitso, 14, relates what he saw in a local hospital where he visited his mother:
I saw a lot of people die. They'd die, and they'd be carried out. Their bed would soon be used by someone else. The dead person just went away.
Some people couldn't eat, and I helped them eat. Some people cried all night. Sometimes I would sit with them so they didn't feel alone. Sometimes I tried to cover my ears because I didn't want to hear their cries.
I learned how to love people, by taking care of my mother.
There is a part of me that is outraged that a boy should not only watch his mother die, but in facilities so basic that he winds up as a caregiver not just for his mother, but for the other patients. I am angry that Africa is so overwhelmed, and that we do so little to help, that we leave the care of the dying to grieving boys. But at the same time, I am inspired by Namitso, who is so willing to give of himself and so able to find a lesson in tragedy.
AIDS has affected Africa long enough that there are children who know no other way of life, who don't remember a time when people's parents didn't shrivel and die in their prime. Beyond the grief, many of the children affected by AIDS face very basic struggles. Loni, 13, shares a not-unusual story:
My father had died. I felt like the world had stopped. Other things went on as before — school, living with Gogo — but everything was different, too. Our problems got bigger. My father didn't help us much when he was sick, but we kept thinking he would get better. Gogo spent her money on medicines for him, thinking he would get better and be able to take care of us. But he died, and we had no money. Gogo spent her savings trying to make him better, and then burying him.
Loni's story reminds us that when we talk about the AIDS crisis in Africa, we are not just talking about an illness, but about its social and economic effects as well. Ellis's interviews allow children to see that as terrible as losing a parent is, it is made worse when that loss also leads to you losing a home, or an education, or a counted-on income — all the stability of normal life. The insecurity of it is tremendous.
The situation in many parts of Africa is dire. Twelve-year old Mitto: "The thing I want most is a passport. There must be happier places."
Ellis has done a tremendous job in giving these children a voice, one that will inspire, sadden and educate other young people. She finds hope without sugar-coating the realities. Indeed, it is the hope of these kids that you remember after the book is put away. For instance, Richimani's description of life at the Mpemba Boys Home:
This is not a bad place. I sleep in a real bed instead of on cement, and there is food for me to eat. I can also go to school and they teach us a trade. Sometimes we play football. My life is better here than it has been in a long time…When I get out, I would eventually like to be a typist in an office. That would be easy work. I would wear clean clothes every day and be paid every week.
Even more hopeful is 17-year-old Chipeero's vow:
I will always keep myself safe from AIDS. I am a man, and I will look after myself, as a man should.
Our Stories, Our Songs is a good introduction to the Sub-Saharan AIDS crisis for children and a reminder of the human realities of the crisis for readers of all ages. It is heartbreaking, but even more it is inspiring, as Ellis herself says in the introduction:
A whole generation has come of age with this disease clouding their futures. I expected to find mourning, fear, and death — and I did find those things. But I also found courage, celebration, community, and the determination of people getting on with the business of life.
Ellis's discovery is the reader's gain.