It took a while for AIDS and its effect on this part of the world to unfurl in my experience and consciousness. And it is still an ongoing process of realization. The first people I met infected with HIV were some of the kids and mamas that live in the OHS house. Only one of the kids, however, is actually allowed to share her status with the volunteers. 4 year old Bahati who is the adopted daughter of our director, Hori, and his wife, Lena. Bahati is a diva, full of life, energy, sass, opinion, personality. She puts up with her pediatric AIDS shingles. She stoic-ly accepts injections and medicines. She is survivng and conquering. But she is only 4. She will battle for the rest of her life. And at some point, only God knows when, the quiet period of her virus will close. The virus will have killed enough immune cells in her body to leave her with a CD4 count of less than 200. She will have full-blown AIDS. And like millions of others, she too will be robbed of her precious life by a disease that cannot be cured.
There are other children in the house who are also HIV positive. They dont know their own status though and neither do the volunteers. That information is guarded by the "parents" of the house. And all the children, positive or negative, take their respective medicines and vitamins without question as to who is taking an anti-retroviral and who is not. The kids are just given a chance to be the spunky, energetic, individual kids that they are and fully live a childhood that is not afforded to so many of their comrades in this part of the world.
So HIV is here on the homefront, but day to day we see smiles and giggles and energy and tantrums and doggy piles and all the other elements one would expect in a house with 21 kids. The kids force their neighbor, the Virus, to take a backstage role while they all dominate the stage with their lively theatrics.
We had an HIV testing day in the village where we teach HIV curriculum in the schools. We advertised the testing day for a week and a half prior. Posters in hand we walked mile after mile of dusty road, climbing hill after hill to reach one Masai boma (family compound) after another. We talked to hundreds of red and purple shuka robed Masai warriors, mamas, kokos and babus (grandparents), and their dusty children. Kokos and Babus laughed and said: Why would an old person like me test? I dont do anything like those crazy young people do to get AIDS. Mamas said: If i found out I was positive, then what? There's nothing I can do about it. Besides, Jesus is the only cure. The men said: We Masai have leaves to make medicines out of to cure anything. Many made empty promises to come test. But come testing day, not one shuka-wearing Masia entered our testing tents, despite our rebuffs to uniformed concepts, our urging that testing is the only way to prevent the spread of the disease, our insistence that the test was free, painless, and quick.
Yet we tested 106 people that day. And I saw the glimmer of achievement to all that we do here in a sometimes seemingly hopeless situation. Our students came out to be tested. Masai all of them, but pursuing education, uninhibited by tradition and superstition, enlightened by not only our curriculum but their own experience and critical thinking. We tested 106. We had 106 negative results. We have a promising next generation. We have hope to end this cycle. We have individuals who care about their own health and care about the ability of their generation to stay healthy and strong. We have young people who overcome stifling fears and stigmas to take a stand against one of the biggest enemies to their countries success and prosperity.
AIDS is a hopeless case if you only look at the ignorant, the unwilling, the victims, the surrenderers of the community. But if you look far enough down the road and watch this minority of enlightened and empowered young people carry their knowledge, conviction, and motivation for change and solution to region after region, year after year, you see hope and you see a way to end this cycle.