Monday, December 1, 2008
When I was a senior in college, I decided to take advantage of the great travel abroad opportunities available and headed off for a month-long trip to Tanzania. My advisor was leading the trip and I knew it would be the trip of a life-time. The course was "Natural History of Tanzania" which meant I would be spending a month on a camping safari in the African bush. I was beyond excited. It was the first time I was leaving the North American continent...it would be the first time I'd ever see the ocean...and my flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam on my way to Tanzania was my first-ever commercial flight.
The trip more than lived up to my expectations. It changed my perspective. It changed me. It is fair to say that my journey to adoption began during that trip to Tanzania.
I met some of the most incredible people in there. People who had so little, but who were willing to give it all to make this group of American students comfortable. People whose lives were hard, but whose smiles were the broadest I've ever seen. People who had so much to do, but who stopped their work to help us learn more about their culture.
One of my favorite people was our driver, A. He worked so hard making sure all of us had everything we needed, that we had the most comfortable ride possible, and that we got close enough to all the animals to get the good pictures. After driving all over Tanzania, A became a hero to many of us (those of you who have traveled on African roads will know why). He was an expert...and he always wore a friendly smile.
A few years after the trip, I re-connected with my college advisor and got caught up with news from the friends I made during my time in Tanzania. It was during this catch-up session that I learned that A had passed away; a victim of AIDS.
I was surprised to hear this news. A was a fortunate person in Tanzania; he had a good job with wonderful employers, and he made a relatively good wage. How could A have died of AIDS? Couldn't he afford the medicine he needed? Couldn't he have asked his employers for help? Couldn't he have asked some of the wealthy safari travelers he befriended for help if he needed it?
The truth is, the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS was so strong he couldn't admit to anyone that he had it. He couldn't ask for help. He knew that if people knew he had it, his family would suffer the consequences. So he suffered and died because of the stigma attached to HIV in his culture.
If A became a statistic of this disease, then what hope is there for the millions of children who are victims of this epidemic?
We have to be their hope. Did you get that? We have to be their hope.
When I think of HIV/AIDS, I don't think of a collection of faceless people who live somewhere else. I think of A's wide smile...I think of the beautiful faces of the children who have been adopted by friends...I think of stoic faces of birth parents who have surrendered their children to orphanages with the hopes that they do not have HIV and can have a life full of hope and promise with a new family...I see the faces of children who look just like my Jellybean and Peanut.
These faces are the faces of real people. People who deserve to have hope. People who deserve to be loved.
Please remember them today (and every day).