AIDS: The Agony of Africa

Part 1: The Virus Creates a Generation of Orphans

Then there are the effects that can't be quantified. "What does AIDS do for the image of Africa?" asks Tony Barnett, a veteran researcher on the economic impact of AIDS. To lure investors, the continent already has to battle underdevelopment and racism, but now, he says, many people will see Africa as "diseased, sexually diseased. It chimes in with so many stereotypes."

Beneath the corporate economy, millions of Africans subsist by cultivating their own small plot of land. When someone in the family comes down with AIDS, the other members have to spend time caring for that person, which means less time cultivating crops. And when death comes, the family loses a crucial worker. Studies have documented that among rural AIDS-stricken families, food production falls, savings dwindle, and children are more likely to be undernourished.

For Kasongo and her 10 orphans, food is a constant problem, but now it has become even harder. On her way back from the fields, carrying a basket of maize on her head, Kasongo tripped and fell. Her knee is swollen, her back is aching, and cultivating the fields is close to impossible. Here, under the radar of macroeconomic indicators, Kasongo's ordeal shows how AIDS is devastating Africa.

South African AIDS activists protest against U.S. drug companies in Johannesburg, 1999.
photo: Mark Schoofs
South African AIDS activists protest against U.S. drug companies in Johannesburg, 1999.

This is the context in which one of Africa's most agonizing debates is taking place: Should doctors administer drugs to pregnant women that sharply reduce the chances that a baby will be born with HIV? So far, the debate has centered on the cost of the drugs, but a new, inexpensive regimen has pushed thornier arguments to the surface.

The "vaccine for babies," as it is sometimes called, does not treat the mother and so does nothing to reduce the chances the baby will become an orphan. That's why Uganda's Major Rubaramira Ruranga, a well-known activist who is himself infected with HIV, opposes it. "Many children in our countries die of malnutrition, even with both parents," he argues. "Without parents, it's almost certain they'll die."

Isn't it impossible to know the fate of any given child and presumptuous to decide it in advance? "That's sentimental," he snaps. Even Foster, who believes "every child has a right to be born without HIV," wonders whether the money is best spent on the "technical fix" of giving drugs to the pregnant women. The medicine is only a part of the cost, for women can infect their children during breast feeding, which raises expensive problems such as providing formula and teaching mothers how to use it safely in places where clean water may not exist. Would all that money, Foster wonders, be better spent alleviating the root causes of why women get infected in the first place? "It's very difficult to stand up and make such an argument because you get portrayed as a beast," he says. In fact, such arguments testify to how the epidemic is forcing Africans to grapple with impossible choices.

  • Weston Tizora is one of thousands of Africans who are trying to give orphans a decent life. Just 25 years old, Tizora started as a gardener at Saint Augustine's Mission and threw himself into volunteering in the mission's AIDS program, called Kubatana, a Shona word meaning "together." Next year he will take over the program's leadership from its founder, British nurse Sarah Hinton. Kubatana's 37 volunteers care for homebound patients, and they help raise orphans by, for example, bringing food to Rusina Kasongo's brood.

    Just a few steps from Kasongo live Cloud and Joseph Tineti. They're 14 and 11, respectively, and the oldest person in their home is their 15-year-old brother. They are, in the language of AIDS workers, a child-headed household. Who's in charge? "No one," Joseph answers-and it shows. Their one-room shack is strewn with dirty clothes, unwashed dishes, broken chairs. On the table, a roiling mass of ants feasts on pumpkin seeds and some kind of dried leaves.

    The troubles run deeper. Their father, who had divorced their mother before she died, lives in nearby Mutare. Does he bring food? "Yes," says Joseph, "every week." It's not true, Tizora maintains. Kubatana members have even talked with the police in their effort to convince the father to take in his children or at least support them. But the police did not act, explains Tizora, because the father is unemployed and struggling to provide for the family of his second wife. Once a month-sometimes not even that often-he brings small amounts of food, so the orphans depend on donations from Kubatana volunteers.

    But if little Joseph's version isn't true, it's what an orphaned kid would want: a father who at least brings food, stops by frequently, and acts a little like a dad. And his mother: What does Joseph remember of her? The question is too much, and he starts crying.

    Kubatana volunteers are supposed to look after the Tineti orphans, so why is their home so unkempt? There used to be two volunteers in this area, explains Tizora. One has been reassigned to work in the nearby mining village, ravaged by AIDS. The other has been away at her parents' home for two months, attending to a family funeral and to her own late-stage pregnancy.

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