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When AIDS Strikes, Children Run These Households

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In a market in South Africa, a woman sells pins to commemorate those lost to AIDS. Photo by Emily Farr
In a market in South Africa, a woman sells pins to commemorate those lost to AIDS. Photo by Emily Farr

Emily Farr, a humanitarian livelihoods specialist for Oxfam America, writes about the flood of memories that washed over her at the close of World AIDS Day.

By Emily Farr

Yesterday was December 1, 2008: World AIDS Day. This year I didn’t do much to mark the occasion, but I did wear a beaded red AIDS ribbon pinned to my shirt. I bought about a dozen of these pins a couple of weeks ago at a market in South Africa as a little memento for some colleagues, and had enough foresight to keep one for myself.

A few times during the day I’d glanced down, startled, having forgotten about my pin. It wasn’t until I began cooking dinner later that evening that I took the time to stop and reflect on why I wore that pin all day.

In this line of work, you meet a lot of people, who often have very sad stories to tell. Tonight I wondered how many of the people that I’ve met through my work are living with HIV or AIDS or who have been severely affected by it. The most accurate answer I could give would be something between “a lot” and “a whole lot.” Their individual stories have gone into my dozens of notebooks although the details usually become blurred together in my memory.

But there are still a lot of stories that I can remember clearly. The most difficult ones to hear are from children, such as the group of three siblings in Zimbabwe. The oldest was probably in his mid-teens, and they were trying to find a way to take care of each other , alone, after the deaths of their parents. They were so quiet as they talked about trying to maintain the small plot of land the family owned, attempting to farm even though they were so young. I remember the way that they sat together in a sliver of shade, their eyes on their hands folded in their laps, though the oldest child occasionally leaned forward as he talked. I can’t help but think that at least they have each other.

More searing to me is the memory of another boy, maybe nine or 10 years old, an only child whose parents had recently died. His family had moved to the village we were in only a few years before, perhaps just before the parents became ill, and after they died there was no extended family nearby to look after the boy. No one knew where the family was originally from or how to contact any other relatives. This particular village is in Zimbabwe, too—a country where so many families have already taken in other children left orphaned. There was no one in the village willing or able to take in the young boy without a family, so he remained in the family home, alone. Occasionally neighbors would bring him some food or do what they could for him, but there was no one to pay for his school fees, or judging by the fact that the shirt he wore was ripped almost in two, to buy clothes for him.¦lt;br /> There are some happy stories, too: The joy apparent in a village that had good access to counseling and testing, to medications, and food; the way that the members of the village were comfortable speaking openly and honestly about their status, because they no longer looked sick and were able to lead productive lives.

I hear far more sad stories than happy ones when it comes to HIV/AIDS, though, and so many of these stories don’t get told in the US, where HIV is no longer a death sentence. I didn’t ask the lady that I bought the beaded pins from about her story, but given the rate of HIV/AIDS in South Africa it’s fair to say that she’s been affected by it in some way or another. We exchanged only a few words of greeting before we agreed on the price, but she allowed me to take her picture. I’m grateful she’s able to make something to help me remember the stories I’ve heard, and I hope she has some happy stories to tell.

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