Ojai woman goes into Africa
By Gael Belden
Ojai resident Gael Belden discusses
her recent trip to Tanzania, and the efforts of the Ojai-based
Global Resource Alliance to combat the effects of AIDS, the disease
that has decimated much of the African continent.
People have said that to go to Africa is to return home. If that
statement is true then I was already home, Africa having long
ago taken residence inside of me; arriving one fine day with
its dusty, antelope-hide suitcase cleaving itself to my bones
as an easy mix of romantic projection, and political and sociological
A few years past, I had immersed myself in the study of the genocide
in Rwanda, reading whatever I could find in order to try to understand
what had happened there. I had also, since childhood, been inspired
by the biographies, political essays and novels, of people who
had once lived, and then written, from the belly of a continent
so complex in its layering of apartheid, war, poverty, disease
(and extraordinary beauty), that I wonder now if they had to
shout their words onto the page - these authors - pulling them,
perhaps, out of their throats in order to untangle, examine,
and write: Just. One. Part.
And there were the naturalists - Goodall and Fossey - whose love
of the great apes of Tanzania and Rwanda would influence and
propel me into my own wildlife studies. Yet, still, I hadn't
actually gone to Africa. My learning came from others' experience.
It was not yet mine.
So, now that I have finally traveled to Africa and am writing
about it, I wonder how I write about, just, one, part? About
finding a people and a land, whose sufferings are unimaginable.
About the awareness that the suffering almost dilutes what is
still breathtaking there; that AIDS nearly cancels the images
of hippos at a watering hole. In my attempts to single out a
few of the aspects clamoring to be heard above the din of 1,000
voices imploring for attention, I will try to find the one piece
of connective tissue that deals with AIDS and the trail of hopelessness
it leaves in its most impartial wake.
To begin with, I traveled to Tanzania (in the Musoma region)
with a small Ojai group - Global Resource Alliance - a financial
support organization directed by Lyn Hebenstreit, whose particular
focus is on the sponsoring of children orphaned by AIDS. In addition,
I was representing a local young person's activist group - the
Jane Goodall Roots and Shoots coalition, who, as one of their
humanity projects, were interested in helping foster communication
and lend support to the sponsored children.
What I found in Tanzania were Tanzanians, braver than a thousand
armies, who faced off daily, with the incomprehensible task of
feeding, housing and caring for communities where AIDS and poverty
(and a litany of other diseases) have cut a swath through their
lives rivaling the fissure of the Great Rift Valley.
Tanzania is not the worst of the African countries. In Swaziland,
38.6 percent of the adults are HIV positive, with five other
African nations facing famine induced by prolonged drought and
a decrease in farm labor due to AIDS deaths. Besides the growing
relationship between hunger and AIDS, there is an educational
crisis afoot as the death rates of teachers dying from AIDS climbs
steadily. It is important to not underestimate the importance
of these two aspects when trying to understand where AIDS has
hit the hardest. Education and agriculture. Remember these two
The people are under a kind of siege. AIDS has driven a continent
just starting to get back onto its feet into a desperation that
boggles the mind in its many-headed monstrosity. Which head do
you look at first?
Countless children have watched both parents die, resulting in
innumerable orphans. In fact, the sheer numbers of orphans are
now so great, that as the relatives and communities are ceasing
to be able to support them, new, most crucial problems are quickly
gaining momentum. Street gangs, children living on the streets,
as well as the very deplorable sexual abuse of girl orphans who
have no safety net (thereby making them vulnerable to being victimized)
are but a few of the dire circumstances orphans are finding themselves
having to face. Even death doesn't seem to offer a final escape.
As cemeteries run out of room, families resort to using cardboard
boxes and pauper graves for their dead children.
It is a many-layered quagmire as to why AIDS has Africa by the
throat. However, if we listen carefully to the words from an
AIDS/HIV group in Zambia we may begin to understand the leading
issue may be that "the HIV/AIDS crisis is not a lack of
resources, but a lack of conscience. The gap between the have
and have-nots." In other words, the African people are willing
to mobilize to help themselves, and the resources are certainly
there (think how easy it is to get antiviral drugs when you have
money), but they are not being made available to the vast numbers
who need them. In addition, factor in lack of education about
how AIDS is spread, an appalling dearth of gender equality, cultural
superstition, and poverty, and there you have it: 2 million in
Kenya living with AIDS, 14.4 million facing starvation in Lesotho,
Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zambia, and one out of every nine
with HIV in South Africa.
Yet, there are people helping amid enormous odds. Small groups
of Tanzanians and countless others within African nations are
working to develop projects on nonexistent budgets. And that's
where we came in. In Musoma and surrounding villages we visited
and aided women's cooperatives, micro-financing groups (set up
to fund small business), schools, clinics (whereby "clinic"
in terms of any definition you may have in your mind can just
go out the window, they help the sick with little more than Band-Aids
and aspirin), and the groups GRA works with - Foundation Help
and S.E.P.A. whose focus is primarily on assisting AIDS orphans
in the Musoma and Serengeti regions.
Now picture this: Visting a young woman sick with the unfortunate
medley of AIDS, tuberculosis and typhus as she sat, eyes glazed,
offering us the use of small broken bits of chairs. We didn't
have a translator until her father came
later and, by that time, we had to leave, and so she wasn't able
to tell her story. It wasn't hard to fill in the blanks, however,
as her story is the common narrative of the area. The one that
I had already heard of. The no-relief zone of poverty, hunger
Of her home in the background which I briefly saw the inside
of, there was nothing in it. Only a dirt floor meeting adobe
walls. While we sat with her in the front of this home with nothing
in it, there was a baby brought by another woman. The baby listlessly
looked at her hands. She had malaria and I wondered if the fever
made her hands interesting to herself? Or, perhaps it was that
there was nothing else to look at except the chicken in the yard
that was dragging another dead chicken that had gotten tangled
up on its foot. I remember how much I wanted to help that chicken
disentangle itself, later understanding that it was possibly
the only thing in that scenario which I really could help.
Later, we interviewed some of the AIDS orphans, which GRA is
sponsoring. Baby Sunday, age 13, has HIV herself. An unlucky
gift from her mother who breast-fed her, Baby had watched both
parents die. She had only small hopes - "Clothes" she
said. I gave her a few things my granddaughter had sent with
me as well as some money for additional clothes when I visited
her at her cinderblock hut. Baby is fortunate in that she is
being raised by her grandmother (who has TB) and her great-grandmother,
who is huge with a stomach growth that she cannot afford treatment
for. The older granny offered me a look at the mass that looked
disconcertingly like a pregnant stomach. We stood together, these
amazing women, and I, and I thought of how African women, who
do most of the farming (or had done it until they started dying),
all the care-taking of the orphans and the sick, as well as scrambling
to make money to feed their families are at the most risk. It
has been said that the face of AIDS in Africa is clearly a woman's
Holding hands as we walked back to the car, Baby and I moved
slowly through the fading light of Musoma region as it began
closing shop for the day. Daylight was replaced by the glow of
the small candles of the street vendors, which cast, incongruously,
a romantic sheen over the daytime glare of slum living.
"Asante Sana," she said softly. And I thought, no -
I should thank you - you with your shiny eyes and your huge courage
- I should thank you for making me understand and see, once more,
what is most brave and hopeful in humanity.
Back in Ojai, I am remembering how tough it was. How different
it was from my romantic projections of an era long past. And
I am also thinking that there are different ways to cut into
a person's humanity than with a machete wielded in Rwanda.
But mostly I am remembering Baby. She is the one who stays with
The Ojai Valley News
to the news
HARDSHIPS, these children haven't forgotten how to smile.
SUNDAY, age 13, is among a growing number of African children
orphaned by AIDS.