Anne de Graaf's blog: International-Intrigue-Injustice

23 December 2006

Teddy Bears, Pandas and Lions

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 3:36 pm

596803_balloon.jpgSouth Africa 2 November 2006
I meet Aubrey at 7.15 a.m. We drive to the nearby small town of Lidgetton. On the way I bring up that I noticed with Mabongi’s schoolwork of yesterday that she may be dyslexic. He expresses frustration that this wasn’t picked up on at her school and tells me about children who don’t have school uniforms, so they don’t go to school. Their parents are too frail from aids to work. They live in a mud hut with sagging roof. A uniform for a small girl costs 110 rand (€12). For an older girl a uniform costs 180 rand (€20). A pair of shoes costs 100 rand (€11). Children may be allowed to go to school if they don’t pay school fees, but they must have a uniform.

The aids medication called ARVs are free for those with a CD4 count below 200.

Aubrey’s job is to visit children to measure the impact of ACAT programmes on children—he measures and weighs and speaks to them. He asks them why they leave school, and questions like mine: what are their favorite subjects. He tells me about ACAT’s philosophy of helping people to help themselves. This very efficient NGO believes in building capacity in people. “Not developing countries, but developing people.”

Aubrey tells me of a young man he knows who was in yesterday’s Place of Hope, but responded so well to the ARVs that he is now back in school. Good nutrition (no white bread and bologna or chips or soft drinks, but fruit and vegetables and protein foods like dairy, meat and fish), not re-infecting through resumed sexual contact with HIV+ partners, taking the ARVs—this is the winning combination which can spell life.

When I ask Aubrey how he personally benefits from his involvement with ACAT, his face lights up. “Now I can see I can do something to help.”

We arrive in the small town of Lidgetton, where we pull up outside a white building with barred windows. It used to be a boarding school, and now Gail, who is the wife of Hugh, one of the ACAT people, runs her Tabitha Ministries here. The name of the building? Hope Centre.

I think, I am surrounded by buildings named after hope. Is this like the difference between a church which is a building and a church which is a group of people who care? Will this building hold hope? I look around and see barbed wire winding its way along the tops of surrounding walls.

Gail is a small, elderly white woman. White hair, wearing some kind of Salvation Army uniform nurse’s smock with pins or medals on the shoulders. She shows me rooms with empty little beds on wheels, and rooms with little beds covered with colorful quilts, and murals and the names of children on the walls, and stuffed teddy bears, pandas and lions standing guard.

She calls them HIV wards as I slowly figure out where we are. This is a home for HIV+ children who have been abandoned. The children are very young—5 and under. So the little beds on wheels are for babies. The little beds with quilts and stuffed animals are for toddlers. I jot down some of the names painted on the walls above their pillows: Thobeka, Ingi, Bonga, Cebo, Siya. “We try hard to individualize the children,” Gail says, watching me scribble away.

Gail shows me the kitchen, and a room for psycho-motor therapy—whatever that is. She speaks like a museum curator, explaining the history of the building, the function of the wards. The High-care room is for newborns. “Newborns?” I ask, my voice rising in alarm.

I am only now starting to learn the rules of war in this zone of casualties. So it’s not just the people with multiple partners or the victims of HIV+ rapists. No, now we have toddlers and newborns. I knew this. I had done my reading, watched the DVDs, perused the press and googled the internet. I did my pre-trip research about aids, but here I am, struggling to place the head knowledge into my heart. And it doesn’t fit. Of course, babies born to HIV+ mothers get HIV. HIV+ babies. I knew this. Then why does the revelation sink in my stomach like lead now and give rise to nausea and panic? I do some more swallowing and scribbling as Gail explains the facility for permanent oxygen.

Then she says, “Our Amanda died here a few weeks ago.” I look up. Aubrey is watching me. “Amanda?” I ask. It is the name of my smart, edgy caring niece. Gail looks at me over her glasses. “Yes?” I blurt out the question, “Don’t the other children ask, ‘Where is Amanda?’” It is a cruel question, it causes Gail pain, I can see that. I want to take it back, but it is too late. She answers, “We don’t lie to them ever. We tell them she has gone to be with Jesus. You’d be surprised how strongly they react when children arrive and when they are gone. We keep his a home situation instead of a hospital. We are all part of the same family.” I smile weakly as we trot after Gail.

I see piles of blankets. At a loss for words, I say something about how clean it all is, and Gail beams. “Nutrition and cleanliness—this is how to battle aids.” She’s like a little sergeant, bustling past her troops as we greet women making beds and doing laundry and stirring huge pots.

Where are the children? I ask myself. We go downstairs and I see a play area and a garden with swings and tricycles. All empty. We walk by many rooms, one contains tables and plastic chairs, a blue mat in the middle, balls, a climbing corner. We walk down a hall that ends at a door with handle at eye level. “The door handles are high up so the children can’t let themselves out.” She reaches for my hands and turns them over. Her touch surprises me—soft, cool, tiny hands. “No open wounds?” she asks. I shake my head no, remembering my Julia had warned me of the same precaution. Gail says, “Fine. We’ll join them now for morning devotions.” I’m hoping “them” are the little ones who woke up under the colorful quilts. At the same time, I’m dreading a repeat of the scenes from yesterday. I don’t know how I will react if this is a roomful of bleeding toddlers in pain.

She turns the handle and pulls the door open. I take a deep breath through my mouth. Aubrey holds the door for me as I enter. I see adults sitting on chairs along the edge of a large room with carpet and high, open windows along one wall. The adults, white and black women, hold one or two babies on their laps. There is calm in the room. Toddlers walk and talk and play quietly on the floor like wildflowers in a field, swaying, then sitting down hard whenever they lose their balance. Gail motions to a chair and I sit down. She’s been saying the names of the people in the room, introducing me as “Anne from overseas.” I write some of the children’s names down: Brian, Futhi, Siga, Cebo.

My face bent over my notebook I feel a touch like a kitten rubbing against my leg. I look up and see a baby has crawled over to me. She sees my face and grins. I grin back and put away my notebook. I dare to look around and see Gail has taken a little girl onto her lap as she talks about a miracle of healing that happened to one of the little boys. “You remember when we all prayed for him.” The adults nod. I lean over and heave the baby onto my lap. She is surprisingly heavy. Maybe 15 months. I run my hand along her back and feel such tense muscles. I rub her back and lean into her warmth, a soft, sweaty warmth. I smell her hair, sweet like lanolin. I squeeze the pudgy hand, soaking up the details of holding a baby in my lap again, memories of my own babies so soft and near. I am thoroughly absorbed.

Gail is reading from the Bible. I look around at Aubrey who actually has two babies on his lap, one on each knee. He is used to this, I think. My head wants to talk about how these little ones will die soon. My heart will have none of it. I lean over and pick up a toy and make it dance before my little girl’s eyes. Lovely big brown eyes that go on and on when I look inside of her.

Now we are saying goodbye to a young woman from Australia who has come over for 3 months and volunteered her time to work at Tabitha. She leaves today for Sydney. We stand to pray a blessing over her. One of the boys—he looks 4—runs over and throws his arms around her legs. “Jesus! Jesus!” he calls out. Everyone smiles some more. Now I notice that I also have been smiling. Smiling in this room means getting smiles back. Gail laughs and says, “Brian, you want to pray?” He hangs onto the Australian’s leg like it is a tree that will never move. She is crying, poor girl. Her heart knows more than mine. Gail prays over her, and we all say “Amen.” The girl hugs everyone and words are said like, “Take care. God bless. Email.” Then she bends and starts picking up each of the 20-odd children scattered on the floor. Tears stream over the girl’s face. I watch fascinated as she loves the children. No one interferes or tries to ease her pain or talk her out of this monumental task. She could have just walked out the door, but instead she stays, weeping over every single child.

I cling to the toddler on my hip. I’m already wondering if I get to carry her around for the rest of our visit. Gail and Aubrey call to me from where they stand beside the door. “Anne?” I tell myself Gail is a busy person. She’s made time for me today. I need to try and be professional. Ha. I sit down and kiss the head of my little one, then gently place her onto the ground. She crawls away without a word.

Now my heart speaks. “Who are these children?” I ask. “Where are their parents?” As I ask the question, I know the answer, then say the word, “Dead.”

“No, not necessarily,” Gail pauses and we look out a window past abstract drawings in blue and orange and green with neatly penciled names at the bottom of the pages. “Many of their parents are the poorest of the rural poor. They cannot care for them. They may be dying themselves. They know we will keep them as comfortable as possible until they die.”

Her last “they” refers to the children. Her children. Until they die. My baby.

Luckily for all of us, Gail has moved on and is telling how she established Tabitha in 1998. She could see the pandemic looming so went to Zimbabwe to see what was coming. A waterfall of words wash over me: Training, home-based care, gardening, counseling skills, small-business development, pastors and church leaders. “You’re involved in all this?” I ask.

Aubrey explains that Tabitha is a partner with ACAT. They pool their resources. Gail’s staff visit schools, do aids information through puppeteering, drama, hold peer-group education weekends for teenagers. There is child care, mothering lessons, and what I have just witnessed, the Orphans and Abandoned Babies and Children home. Home. They make home visits, urban and rural. “Most of these people live way, way below the poverty line.” At Hope Centre they do training, counseling, wellness clinic, patient care.

We sit at Gail’s desk now. I pick up a photo of a baby. “Who is this?” I ask. “Solomon was our first aids baby.” The verb tense hangs in the air like a forgotten balloon.

Gail sends me across the hall to talk to Carol from Canada. Carol teaches high school chemistry in Ontario, but volunteers 3 months during her vacation to work at Tabitha. So she flies over, makes beds, cleans up vomit, holds babies, and this year, does surveys. “We wanted to find out the extent of child-headed households in the community—this is what you wanted to know, right?” Yes, I think, child-headed households.

“We were shocked by the in-depth study. So far I’ve identified 62 households ran by children. There may be a granny, but she may be blind or actually more of a burden than the younger siblings.” I ask for details, particular stories, children she remembers, surprises, stories of hope. It’s a tall order, but this will become my mantra for the rest of the trip. Carol tells me of 3 orphan boys who have lost their parents, granny and aunt. She has walked from house to house, asking children, “Who is caring for you?”

“Carol,” I ask. “How has this been for you, going into the homes like that?” She nods. “It’s been a great tragedy for me. I try to have food packages with me. Sometimes we have second hand clothing. I also try to help with school uniforms and fees.” I look at her and ask my famous, “How do you cope?” She says, “I try not to ask the question what am I going to do with the other 148 children. We’re in crisis here.”

She tells me how they go for quality not quantity. Those orphans they identify they try to make sure are properly cared for and fed. The focus at Tabitha is shifting from patients to community care and children, teaching the community how to cope, giving training sessions and workshops to community volunteers who return to their villages or in this case, to the township here called Sweetwater, and teach others how to care for the sick, the bereaved, the dying. Carol talks about the amazing bravery of gogos, the grannies who have buried their own children and now must raise another generation, save for their educations, dream of their futures.

I learn the word “induna,” which is Zulu for a sort-of assistant chief. Each induna has so many families under his care. The indunas in Sweetwater helped Carol immensely with her survey.

When I press for details, this is what I hear:
• Household with seven teens. Shy, shell-shocked, no shoes. Lost their mother in 2003, 21-year-old aunt died in 2004, gogo died in 2006. Boys chased from school because they have no uniforms that fit and cannot afford the school fees.
• Household where youngest is mentally disabled or extremely traumatized. The older children climb through windows and steal to stay alive.
• 3 boys and 2 sisters living alone, going to school, neighboring gogo keeping eye on and caring for the kids. She paid their school fees out her own pension. School fees equal 50-63 rand (€7). This gogo says it brings her great joy to do the washing. She is blessed by the children, she says. The neighbors help by collecting money for the orphans’ school fees. Zoma is 15 and the eldest. The two girls are twins 9 years old. Carol asked Zoma about what he feels and he said, “I love this gogo because she is taking care of us. I pray for this gogo, that she will not die.”

19 December 2006

A Gift Returned

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 5:18 pm

673507_peaceful.jpgMet with yet another extraordinary Corine yesterday. A woman who helped me. Finally a key that fits. I feel like so many of you have been scrambling to find something that would unlock my piled-high emotions and let me write again. One friend reminded me I felt this way after Bosnia, too. I came home shocked to the core at the high number of gang rape victims among the Bosniak women. It took me four years to write about that. This time it took me four weeks to ask for help. Corine helped me understand that a tsunami of emotion won’t really drown me. And that it’s not my responsibility to protect all of you from my stories. I can tell the truth, to myself first of all. And even though I seek hope in places of darkness, it’s ok if I didn’t find it everywhere. I thought, isn’t it wrong to acknowledge hopelessness and despair? It’s not wrong, if it’s the truth. I feel tremendous relief at the prospect of letting go of this . . . need. I am not responsible for putting a hope spin on everything. There are times when people will find their own hope, or not, depending on their hearts. Maybe what I’m supposed to do is describe the children’s pain and admit that no matter how hard I tried, in some instances I could not find even the tiniest scrap of hope, that these children live truly desperate lives.

So here I am, telling the truth. And if there is no hope, and when people feel the children’s pain because I am no longer trying to protect all of you from the truth, then your hearts can be moved. So I tell the truth—for myself first of all, to heal my own heart.

Only once before have I ever been somewhere with so little hope—in Iraq in 2001, when the Christian teens I met with had no dreams for the future. The girls knew they were destined for prostitution and the boys knew they would serve 5 years from their 17th in Sadaam’s army and come out like animals. This story of despair moved the people who heard it.

Am I a failure because I found no light in every place I visited? No. But I will shine the light on these situations now. And my very telling is a sign of hope, for no longer are these children alone and voiceless, and my stories about them may give rise to others’ hearts opening and finding the courage to care.

What is the truth? Some of the children I met and held and listened to and smelled are dead now. I don’t know which ones, but I miss them. If they’re not dead, they will be soon. I know my 9-year old is being raped over and over again in the dark night. She is alone, abandoned, afraid. Oh sweet heart! My babies—arms flung wide to hold and hug, climbing onto my lap, your hair rough like warm wool against my lips. Where are you now? Who comforts you in the night on that rubbish dump where they found you? Sweet Princess Rachel with eyes warm and dark like a summer night, don’t be in pain. Heal them all. Restore them. Find a cure. My heart is awash with tears.

What do I see? The face of David, scarlet ski cap, grandson of a chief, aids lesions bleeding on his face, writing his songs of love and fright in my notebook. What poets died today? Great men and women—the future of Africa, the flower of African manhood and womanhood. How many Mandelas die today?

South Africa 1 November 2006
I arrived in Durban to humidity and fatigue. They took me out right away that afternoon after the long drive, to rural areas around Pietermaritzburg. I only had time to change my clothes. (See, the green notebook is opening now—page 1. Ah finally.) I called it a journey of hope. It’s all right that I sometimes lost track of hope along the way. The nature of hope is that it is unseen.

The first afternoon Afrikaner Aubrey of ACAT brought me to Ethembeni, Zulu for “Place of Hope.” OK, so here it is at the very beginning of the trip—a place of hope. This hospice is a ministry of Howick Community Church. Here I saw a 36-year old and 47-year old with toothless smiles. One of the caregivers said to me, “Things get bad, bad and bad, but then there’s God.” This was an answer to the first of hundreds of times that I asked the very simple question, “How do you cope?” “Thembeni” in Zulu means trust or faith or hope. I learned here that “good care” means healthy diet+ARVs (aids medication)=life prolonged for HIV+.

Here I saw my first aids patients. The caregiver damp dusted to keep the rooms cleaner. Still, the flies on windows flew circles around our faces like vultures waiting to alight. Raised beds, hopeless young faces. Sores on lips and ankles and elbows, lesions bleeding, smell of rotting flesh, eyes desperate, gaunt faces, cheekbones sticking out. What in their eyes? Pain, a mixture of shame—shame and pain and fear. Yes, fear. Fear of death and pain.

I could do nothing for them. I touched their bony hands, ran my fingers along their long, thin, piano player hands. The sores on their bare feet so painful, they could not walk. I saw two women in one room and two men next door. Smell of the sick. Boxes. Tiles on floor, towels. Fridge. A radio with music and talk. One of the men was 22-year-old Sepo from Lesotho, so there was no family nearby to visit.

(Here on the faceless forum of this blog, I will highlight as I write a roll call of the dead and dying–their names a death knell in my heart.)

Outside the township ran up and down the hills. Red dirt roads wound like snakes along the rows of plastered houses, their silver corrugated roofs shining like square nickels in the sun. House numbers painted on walls-6000. Children waving at us as we drove away from Place of Hope.

How did I feel there? I didn’t feel hopeful, that’s for sure. I had to keep swallowing—I remember that. My first aids victims. I felt very healthy, for one thing. White and healthy. I felt ashamed to be thinking, “But these are only four of the millions.” When I asked why the facility wasn’t larger, Aubrey said because this was all the church could afford. He sort-of blinked at me, like I had asked about something so obvious. The thought still battered me, “What good did it do to help only four people die with dignity and not alone, but comforted?” I knew the answer: for those four people it made a world of difference. Then I remembered Abiyoudi in Tanzania saying that for a refugee with nothing and no one, when one person comes alongside and offers help, it is all they have in the world and makes all the difference between nothing and something, being alone and being comforted. The comfort of strangers. The kindness of strangers. I had a sense that those four patients were the tip of a glacier, the tip of an ice age. In them I see the aids pandemic. In their eyes I see the fear of millions. Their pain, the sores on their feet and elbows–are the wounds of the world.

Yesterday with Corine I spoke of the hopelessness I feel when I look at the big picture, the statistics of 15 million aids orphans, 2/3 of the population HIV+, 80% of the children sexually abused. No hope there. And I can admit that. I’m not letting God down.

But when I tell the stories of individuals—not always, but sometimes—I find threads of hope. And all the aid workers I met said this is how they cope, by focusing on the one child. So Place of Hope exists for the one aids patient. And now there are four.

I don’t want to pretend hope. I don’t want to Photoshop it in where it doesn’t exist. It’s enough to simply describe what I saw and felt and smelled. To report the truth. I’m back to being a reporter.

The truth? I felt confused and in anguish at Place of Hope. I found myself wandering in the Valley of the shadow of death, and the valley stretched farther than the eye could see. I had never felt such vast distances of despair. What was this new war zone I found myself in, where the dead pile up all week, to be buried in a storm of tears on Saturdays like some blighted harvest?

As we drove away from Place of Hope, I knew I could not get my head or heart around what was happening there. So I opened my heart as wide as I could. I focused on every face, listened for the cultural cues, learned a few words of Zulu, determined to be a blessing and encouragement to those I met, and prayed blessings over the heads of children. Deep inside my trust in my own heart and the purpose of this trip grew strong. Many things I couldn’t explain, but I knew I could write about this.

So when we rolled up outside a one-room house and walked down the dust-engraved hill, through drizzle, ducking to enter a dark home, my new resolve shuddered. “Not this, Lord,” my heart cried out. For Aubrey was telling me, even as we picked our way through the garbage to reach the house, that here lived aids orphans and a gogo (Zulu for grandmother), typical of so many child-headed households. I hear Aubrey’s voice still, “The eldest is 12. She is HIV+ because she was raped when she was 9.” I pause to take in the sight of barbed wire fences with spiked tops. Goats and cattle wander between the houses and through the hills. Garbage heaps punctuate the spaces between road and home. A teenage boy holding a bottle of beer staggers past us. His eyes bloodshot and unfocussed, run over me like a strange man’s hands.

As we enter, she sits curled up on the bed, shy, her doe eyes following every movement I make. She and her younger sisters show me their schoolwork, spelling vegetables in English. The 12-year old has top marks on all her pages. She is called Pindile. Her name means “to turn or answer again.” Pindile wants to be a nurse when she grows up. Seven-year-old Pela (short for Philisiwe, which means “health”) wants to be a police officer, unheard of 8 years ago, but now a very real possibility among the new black middle class of this brave South Africa. Little Mabongi dances for me and claps her hands as, at the end, all three girls sing Jesus songs. Even Aubrey joins in. I sit on a wooden stool and hum, my heart exploding. I do the hand motions, afraid for these children, so unprotected. The youngest’s name in Zulu means “thankfulness and repeated thankfulness.” The children dance and clap their hands and sing. I stand and clap, too, my heart beating like a drum. I feel claustrophobic; I can’t breathe, the despair we all deny like the elephant in the room none of us will acknowledge.

On the way out of the township Margaret, our Zulu interpreter, sits in the back of the truck. Aubrey has told me she is HIV+ and willing to talk about it. I bring up the sexual abuse of little Pindile. “Does it happen often?” I ask. Their answers devastate me. Pindile is more the rule than the exception. Margaret says her 7-year-old granddaughter has aids classes in school where they warn her to stay away from boys because they will want to have sex with her. She told Margaret she felt frightened not because of the classes, but because already, boys call to her on the road and chase her as she walks home from school. There are aids classes in school starting at 7 years through high school.

We drive past a soccer field with wooden goal posts and no net. Soccer teams in SA: Chiefs vs. Pirates.

My last visit on this first day is to another crowded home, this one with a main room, containing benches, a table, stove in the corner. Lightning and thunder in fog outside. A woman, many children on the couch. I meet Manbla, which means “power or strength.” Little Manbla has wild hair that stands up straight like electrified cotton. In the back room I meet Sipho (ph=p), which means “gift.” There is a flush toilet behind a door. I duck inside and use it, aware that everyone can hear me. When I emerge, they are smiling. Margaret says they were afraid it wouldn’t be clean enough for me. I smile and say it was just what I needed. The smiles have taken me by surprise because, young Sipho lies in a dark corner on a mattress, two sticks for legs beneath a sheet. Music blares from the neighbor’s house. “Does it bother her?” I ask. The gogo answers there is nothing they can do since they don’t want to anger their neighbors. I remember the benchful of men we passed as we entered this home.

Sipho has sores on her legs. This is full-blown aids. She is dying. She is dead now, as I write this 6 weeks later. Sipho is so thin I can count her ribs. Someone asked me if I wanted to see her body. I said no, thinking it was no way to treat the dying, showing them to strangers like exhibits. But then one of the women said, “You have come all this way to see what aids is doing. How can you go back and describe what you found if you have not looked at what it does?” Confused, ashamed, I nod. Somehow it’s an honor, what they are offering to show me—Sipho’s shriveled young body. I think she is 15. Flesh hanging slack from her collarbone. Facedown on the mattress, her eyes haunted, skin bleached white, dull eyes, scent of sickness, neighbors’ radio screaming, sheet pulled back to reveal bony hips, hanging hands.

“Is she in pain?” I ask Aubrey and Margaret in the truck afterwards. “Yes.”

On November 1 I wrote: It happened on the first day here, my heart already breaking. I kept trying to listen with my heart and look at these people with His eyes. That’s where my heart broke. I saw my Daniel in 22-year-old Sepo from Lesotho, but gaunt and pale and suffering and doomed. The horses of Revelation come out to meet me. This time last year I was in Liberia. There the specter of war haunted everyone I met. Here it is this wretched plague. I feel like those horses in the Bible gallop after my very soul.

13 December 2006

Sex with a Virgin

Filed under: Aids survival — annedegraaf @ 2:09 pm

kid-and-globe.jpgSo here’s the thing. I’m going to start writing about what I saw in South Africa and Zimbabwe when I went there looking for stories of hope. But I think I need to tell the truth. So I’m using this blog as a faceless forum, though ironically, I’m actually connecting with everyone. Anyone out there listening? Am I facing the right direction?

Here’s what I remember—here’s what grips my heart and won’t let me go—the widespread sexual abuse of orphans because they are so vulnerable, and because of the misguided hope that sex with a virgin will cure aids. There. I’ve said it. I’m writing.

South Africa
–A nine-year old who was taking care of her sick mother with an 18-month-old brother on her hip and hanging up heavy laundry when she was 7. Now she’s abandoned by that mother who regained her strength and took the baby and ran. The girl lives with her best friend’s mother. Such a sad face. She may be sexually abused by the men we saw near her house. Tears of fear. When I asked her why she cried, she said because she is afraid everyone she loves will die.
–An 11-year old who was raped is HIV+ as a result. She sat on the one bed in a one-room shack in what they call a “community” now, the pc term for township. Her sisters showed me their homework while the grandmother sat wearing a ski cap and toothless grin. When I asked the girl what she wants to be when she grows up, she said a nurse. After our questions, she joined her little sisters in singing as they showed me a dance.
–Gail with Princess Rachel on her lap. Gail adopts HIV+ babies abandoned on rubbish dumps. Princess Rachel ran a fever the day I visited their home and she curled up on Gail’s lap as we talked about Gail’s broken heart because one of her babies had died a few weeks earlier.
–In the rural area I visited outside of Pietermaritzburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal, 70% of the people are HIV+. I spoke to a Zulu assistant chief, with 500 families under him, and his face filled with despair. “Saturdays we have funerals. I spend all day attending them.”
–Nearly 15 million aids orphans in Africa now. I was supposed to be there looking for stories of how they cope, how they raise their siblings, how they survive. I found gogos. “Gogo” is Zulu for grandmother. This is the generation raising the children, since my own generation—the 25-50-year olds—are dead or dying.
–Smelling rotting flesh in the rooms where full-blown aids tore away lives. The eyes, the gaunt faces, the names, the blankets thrown over bedsores the size of my hand, mattresses on the floor, lips bleeding, lesions and sores, bony hands, fleshless arms, their soft, whispered voices echo through my heart in this valley of the shadow of death.

6 December 2006


Filed under: Thin and Thick Places — annedegraaf @ 11:34 am

Wondering about thin places–where the space between heaven and earth seems thin, when heaven seems closest–something from Celtic spirituality that a trusted friend told me about. So these are places where God seems nearest, places of comfort, places of weakness, places of joy, places of light, places of love. And places of pain and sorrow and conflict.

Struggling with the memories and images and experiences of this hunt for hope I went on in South Africa and Zimbabwe last month. Can’t find a place for them–my heart overflowing these days. I thought maybe I can’t find a place for these stories because there isn’t one. But now I’m wondering.
In wonder.
These stories of courage and comfort in the face of death and despair belong in a thin place.
Light in darkness.
Heaven a breath of breeze just barely felt
Caressing my heart
In hope.

5 December 2006

Hello world!

Filed under: The Children's Voices,Thin and Thick Places,Write on — annedegraaf @ 2:55 pm

This photo was taken in October during a boat trip through the San Juan Islands in Washington State. A pod of orcas wanted to check me out

Since then I’ve travelled from the Northwest of America to Mexico back home to The Netherlands to South Africa to Zimbabwe and back home again. The trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe was to research aids survival, not quite the oxymoron I first thought it was.

Finding hope in places of darkness–that’s what I write about. So be sure to check back here often for my comments about the children’s voices in places of conflict, and to read my musings. Please also feel free to leave your own comments below.

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