Africa is dying. Americans are luxuriously distant from that, sitting in their easy chairs, watching TV ads that assert “AIDS is a great plague upon humanity that has already claimed the lives of over 21 million people.” AIDS is rather different for me. It’s personal, and about this I don’t have a choice.
My parents moved the family to Ethiopia when I was seven years old. There, I have seen the staggering statistics as actual, very real people staggering towards sure death. Every evening on the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, young girls literally line up to die. They’re easy to spot, sitting there along the edge of the road, waiting for the night’s business. The statistics? Ninety-seven (97) percent of the prostitutes in Ethiopia have AIDS.
These girls are not “Pretty Women,” and they do not wear high-heeled boots and red lipstick. Their main appeal is that they are young, 12 to 14 years old. With a young prostitute, their customers feel “safe” from the AIDS epidemic. Their thoughts? Everything from the desperate hope of escaping poverty to memories of friends who died trying. Maybe they will stay lucky for a few more months, or for a few years, but they will not escape the AIDS. Of course, AIDS has probably already caught up to them, too, and is just waiting to hand them over to the common cold.
These not-so-innocent girls probably contracted AIDS from an older man who visits them after work before he goes home to his wife and six children, an older man who thinks he’s smart to use a young “chickie” for vile exploitations. This older man probably got the virus years ago and now vigorously multiplies his victims. His wife just started coughing up blood, so he will have to save money for medicine (he prides himself on his foresight). But he will enjoy himself a little more first. Those girls will die soon. So will he.
And when he does, he will leave a sick wife with the children. And when she dies, she will add six children to the 700,000 already orphaned in Ethiopia because of AIDS. Over 100,000 of these orphans themselves have AIDS. In Addis Ababa, there is a Mother Teresa home for these very children. More than 160 kids live there, cared for by four overworked nuns. The cause is mercy, and the need is overwhelming.
Friends and I visited the Mother Teresa home one day. Large metal gates at the front, keeping the kids there til death-do-them-mercy. Seeing five white faces, the guard unlocked a small door in metal, and we tentatively stepped through. Children of all ages looked up, rose swiftly, and scampered to us, strangers who they thought might give them some attention. Twenty hands grabbed and pulled me at once. The nuns appeared from within the rundown walls, each carrying a baby. “Heedu! Heedu!” they cried, shooing the kids aside as best they could. “Taynayestiling!” they welcomed us together. They gave us free reign of the grounds and expressed excitement that we would visit their humble work.
Our backs to the looming gate, we stood for a minute or two, shocked as we absorbed the reality of these forlorn dozens. There were tall children and short children, skinny children and skinnier children. Many of them were missing patches of hair, as if it had been viciously yanked out. Open wounds festered on the scalp. A yellow fluid oozed from reddened eyes. Flies buzzed around the gaping sores. I wanted to get out of there, simply go home. I looked at the ground so those reddened eyes would not see my tears. I sought the nursery for refuge. There I might cuddle some smooth-skinned babies.
The doorway into the home itself loomed dark. A few of the little girls–they could have been five or fifteen for all I could tell–scampered in with me and clung to my cringing hand. I could feel the various welts and scabs covering the rough skin on their hands.
I shrank at the sight of a lone child prostrate on the cement floor. He was facing away from me, and he was not moving. Then he started shaking. His thin body crashed down onto the floor but then arched up suddenly. He coughed hard. Lifting himself, he coughed, droplets of blood pelting the cement. His body shook once more and then stopped. He dropped back down, laying his head on the bloody floor, and was still.
From behind, a nun touched my shoulder. “Just leave him; another will come soon,” she said in a heavy accent as she motioned for me to follow. We passed other doorways, some with hordes of playing kids, some with a lone dying child. Soon I could hear babies whimpering. The little girls still clung to me
One of my friends was already there, holding a bundle. She mutely handed it to me as she hurried out. It weighed nothing. With two fingers I pulled back the blanket–a boy with translucent skin. Counting the bones was easy. His eyes were closed, but the lids didn’t conceal their light brown. His tiny cracked lips lacked any color. He too had open sores on his head. He was breathing, but barely. He gave a tiny whimper. “Is there any food for this baby?” I asked, incredulous, but my guide shook her head.
“He does not keep food inside. You should take another baby.” I picked up a baby that seemed to have some life and stuck a bottle in her mouth. When she would not stop crying, I rocked her back and forth, pacing through the cramped nursery. By this time the head of the first baby had rolled over; his mouth slightly ajar. The nun must have noticed because she gathered him up and left the room, as did I.
The little girls followed still, huddling around my legs. The lights grew brighter, and when I stepped outside, I stood for a minute to breathe again. The kids playing soccer with two of my friends looked much healthier to me. Sure, they had swollen sores and bare feet and snotty faces, but at least they were smiling and running around and having the time of their life.
I remember the sound of the iron gate clanging shut as we left. None of us spoke. We walked quickly through the evening’s street, averting our eyes from the line of young girls looking for their nightly pay. The men would come again. They would exchange money (and their deadly viruses) for pleasure, and would leave.