Dispatches: Reflecting OnThe Lost Generation
This past Sunday, December 1, was World AIDS Day. Since it fell on a Sunday, squashed in the middle of the Thanksgiving holiday here in the U.S., the subsequent shopping frenzy and American Football Day, it seems to me like it got lost a little.
For me, though, I did reflect a bit on what I knew of, came to know, and know now of this still-deadly disease.
I remember the 1980s, when men, mainly gay males, started to die, yet doctors and scientists weren’t sure why. It quickly became known as the “gay disease.” Seemed like it took years before we became enlightened and educated enough to know who could be infected by AIDS, and why. Unfortunately, I still think education needs to happen to many.
I remember the day in 1991 when Magic Johnson, then of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, announced he had AIDS and abruptly retired from the NBA. It was a stunning announcement that did a few things: It made people realize this wasn’t just a “gay disease” and it really brought the disease home to the community that many Americans love and relish the most: the sports world.
Back then, there was one drug for people suffering with the disease. Then, very expensive drug “cocktails” were developed to combat the disease. Covering the healthcare industry for a monthly magazine in the mid-1990s, I wrote a lot of articles about the strides being made and the medicines being developed. Of course, you had to be able to afford these medicines.
Today, more than 30 drugs are available and AIDS is no longer the automatic death sentence it once was. Science and progress has made this a disease that can be combated, and those that have it can survive and flourish.
Which leads me to my recollection. In 2011, I had the honor and privilege of spending the day at Nyumbani Village. From their website: Nyumbani Village is a model bio-friendly and self-sustaining community serving orphans and elders who have been left behind by the “lost generation” resulting from the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Opened in 2006, it is a place where orphans of the HIV/AIDS pandemic can enjoy a safe haven, living under the watchful eyes of grandparents who lost their adult children to HIV/AIDS.
Nyumbani Village is in Kitui, Kenya, about 180 kilometers east of Nairobi. I was there in Nairobi on annual report business, and the Nyumbani story was one we wanted to include. Myself, art director Stephen, photographer Victoria Pearson and her assistant Jon started out early one morning from our hotel in Nairobi, along with on of my colleagues from Nairobi. We arrived at the village, in late morning. The red dust was already flying and it was hot.
Getting out of the van, stretching our legs, we were welcomed by Sister Mary Owens, the Ireland-born nun that has lived in Africa for the past 30 years and has been the head of Nyumbani from the start. With gorgeous light streaming into the hand-made block administration center, and complete with tea and cookies, we had had an introductory discussion with Sister Mary, who gave us the background on the villages.
Once done, and under the bright mid-morning sun, we started on a walking tour of the spacious village.
Everywhere we looked, young children in short pants uniforms to older students in bright yellow t-shirts were making their way to and from class. These children lived in nearby huts (again, hand-made block huts) on the grounds (or maybe just off grounds in the local community) and most, if not all, had lost parents to AIDS. But their smiles were infectious and their educational determination to learn was evident.
Especially in Sister Rose’s chemistry class.
As mentioned earlier, Nyumbani Village works to be self-sustainable. It is designed to house 1,000 orphans and 100 elderly grandparents in 100 homes. The village has three schools, a medical clinic, worship center, and other community buildings. They grow their own vegetables, have chickens and other food sources on the grounds, and were learning, thanks to a partner program with Princeton University, how to capture, store, and recycle the monsoon rain water to help get them through the dry months.
After a spartan, but tasty, lunch, we were given a tour of some of the living huts, and the susu’s or grandmothers, that oversee them. Usually 8-10 people – mostly kids, preschool to teens, live in the huts with the grandparent. Again, mud block huts, but immaculately kept.
Agnes, above, was working weaving baskets. I bought one of her small baskets before leaving and it now collects different small items in our playroom at home. I kinda smile when I it and remember the warm face of the woman that wove it.
We also received a tour of the woodworking shop. The wood chips were flying as students were hard at work on projects, both for the village use, but also to sell in the community.
Throughout the day, Sister Mary and other teachers gave us a better understanding about how AIDS had affected the local community. She’s a tireless fighter to gain support for her village, and to make sure the children have their needs – food, spiritual, education – met so as to overcome the hardship of losing their parents.
Being there really brought the AIDS epidemic home to me. It’s a long way from a basketball star announcing he had a deadly disease, and a long way from my New Jersey home. But when I signed my name in their guest book before leaving, I felt I had a better understanding of the ripple effects this disease has on a local, but also a global, level.
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