AIDS ribbonOur Sweetest Failure

This is a crisis of compassion, requiring not a change in laws or government, but of hearts. We can look at the children with stolen futures, at an entire continent whose futures hang in the balance, and ask questions of God. Or we can look at the same problems, and realize that these are God's questions to us. Who cares about AIDS in Africa?
Phillip Yancey, in "Cry the Beloved Continent"

Even two months later, her eyes were there when I closed mine, Fanning the flies away, I covered her thin legs with her sweater. Her own loving mother mopped her brow and gave her tiny sips of passionfruit juice.

She had not kept food down in weeks. We had tried two different government health agencies in Soroti, the town nearest to our village in northeastern Uganda, but both were overwhelmed with clients. One had plenty of medication, but was staffed by high school graduates who didn't seem to know what to do. The other agency had no medication and just didn't care. Much too weak to make the long, bumpy van trip from the village to our doctor in Kampala, Betty was admitted to Soroti Hospital…where the beds are 18 inches apart. Family caregivers sleep under the beds on mats among the kerosene lanterns.
The mosquitoes are thick. And the assigned government doctor never came.

Ketty Melissa is 9, and we met her and her mom seven months earlier. She was wide eyed with wonder when we brought her to see electric lights and the streets of Soroti town for the first time in her life. Her first time to sleep in a bed was when she shared a room with me that night. She ate two bites of breakfast the next morning, and asked if she could take the rest of it home for Mom. The connection between mother and sole surviving daughter didn't need words: they touched using their eyes.

Those eyes. During healthier times, they begged me to take care of her daughter after she was gone. She thought about Ketty Melissa all day long. What would become of her little girl with no father, and no mother?

In the final weeks, Betty's eyes looked past me. They winced ever so slightly as she leaned on her mother, shuffling to our breakfast table when she visited our home. They shut weakly as she was scooped up like a child when her steps faltered at the clinic. And they stared lifelessly as she struggled to get the words out. "She is worried of her daughter," I was told. Her fears were for Ketty. By lantern light at midnight the night before Betty died, we again assured her that Village2Village would continue to care for Ketty. I don't think her eyes saw anything then; I just hoped she could feel my hand holding hers. And at dawn, when the hospital called our manager to let him know she was gone, he wrapped Betty's body in the blue flowered sheet we had given her earlier and helped carry her out. Her body traveled over the bumpy village road in the bed of a pickup truck. It was also filled with a rented tent for our Vacation Bible School camp scheduled to begin two hours later, involving hundreds of children. Death and life in the same truck. TIA… This is Africa.

Her funeral was huge; more than five hundred people attended. Since everyone needs to be fed, this can be the final straw for an African family…already drained economically by the illness of a loved one, they often sell the remaining animals or land they have to buy rice or beans to feed the guests. Those who haven't eaten recently make sure they come to the burial.

They introduced Betty's relatives one by one. They introduced each of our staff and our American team, thanking us for our prayers and care for the family. They introduced the local leaders, the clergy and all the important people. And… they forgot to introduce Ketty, Betty's only child. Even in the best of communities, orphans are unseen. Yet she was seen—Our Village2Village children, staff, visiting team and our own kids from America surrounded and cried with Ketty as she mourned her mom. A staff member rubbed her back throughout the funeral. Our caseworkers visited her and spent time with her and her grandparents in the last weeks. Her sponsors sent words of encouragement and a soft toy to hug. And although Ketty lost her mom despite all that was tried, she knew that her mother's life was precious. We cannot always succeed in this fight, but we can always value each life.

Who cares about AIDS in Africa? Those of you who have partnered with us to bring compassion to those this illness leaves behind can answer confidently, "WE DO." On behalf of Adeke Betty and Ketty Melissa, thank you for your heart.

Written in 2006 by Laurie Kroll. In 2007, we hired coordinators for "Hope Ministry" to work with our 20 guardians with serious medical needs, and haven't lost another guardian in the Hope program since that time.
"My time in Africa has given me a new way to look at life. Virtually everything I do is measured against the reality of suffering in Africa. Once you've seen the suffering you can't unsee it. You might try to forget it, but you can't unknow it. Everything after Africa, for me, is a choice. Either I ignore what I saw or I try to fix what I saw." (Gerry Straub, San Damiano Foundation)

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