what one can do

May 26, 2007

I was vaguely aware of the voices from the TV in the background, engrossed in my book while friends plaited hair and commented periodically on the antics of the Lusaka network series’ characters. But then, after a few minutes of the next program, I suddenly realized what I was hearing and I was drawn to the set with a sort of disturbed fascination. It was simply an animated show for children, I thought—until the child on the screen sadly mused, “ . . . I used to have a mama and papa, and an auntie and uncle, and many relations here in the village. I heard the neighbors whispering about AIDS . . . I am lonely—and so hungry . . .”
When I asked my friends about the show, they said, with a sort of matter-of-fact indifference, that is was an educational program, teaching Zambians about the spread of HIV and about how they must not be afraid of, or discriminate against, those with the disease.
It strikes me that the problem with this approach may be that, while the disease is indeed everywhere, those who are ill either do not know it or will not admit it—to anyone. I think of a man whose employers found him immobile in his hut when they went to see why he had been missing from work. Taking him to be tested for HIV, they found their suspicions correct, and so they signed him up for the Antiretroviral Therapy, free thanks to internationally funded relief programs. He is now doing well, a year later, working and apparently healthy—but to this day he refuses to tell his own wife that he is infected. Talking with some missionary friends recently in Ndola, they confirmed that they too knew of many such instances.
Here in Zambia there is a strong cultural taboo against the disease—a taboo which is combined with a resigned acceptance of promiscuity that comes in the form of affairs, multiple wives, and the like—clearly, a deadly combination. And a hugely daunting problem, in the grand scheme of things.
So when I start to think about it, I worry, and I wonder what can be done. But frankly, I haven’t the slightest clue how to begin in this realm: this sort of relief and development work is way out of my teacher/librarian/writer league. Beyond that, I am increasingly aware, as the years go by, of my limitations [though I spent my early years fearlessly assuming I could do anything and everything]; I am simply not one to do great things, in terms of accomplishments.
What then, can I do? Perhaps all I am meant to do is build up those around me. In some small measure, if I can encourage and empower the people in my sphere of influence, I may be able to influence in some way, when it would be pointless [and perhaps detrimental] to try to change behaviors and cultures. This, I suspect, is why I was struck by the urge to make a small gift to a friend in the village. It was a photo of a stunning West African woman, staring frankly into the camera, with a caption that read “I am powerful.” I made a simple matting and a frame for the photo, and took it to her, explaining that it made me think of her when I saw the beauty and strength of this woman’s face. My friend cannot even read the words herself, but my hope is that in small way this reminder that now hangs by her bed can keep her mindful of the inherent, God-given worth that she must never compromise for the sake of empty words and human frailties.

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