By Anne de Graaf
My first plague caught up with me in Bulawayo. I went there to research a book and interview child-headed households in Zimbabwe. In 2006 Mugabe had just thrown out of the country all NGOs and reporters, leaving his people without security, without medication, without support. His secret police were going door-to-door arresting people who spoke out against him. He had organized youth military camps where 10-year olds learned how to take apart and put together an AK-47 in record time.
A Dutch publisher had asked me to write a teen novel about AIDS survival. I arrived in Bulawayo via rural South Africa. Here’s an excerpt from my notes:
–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, an induna, 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 here 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.
As bad as South Africa was, Zimbabwe was worse. There, the vulnerable young people orphaned and raising one another had lost all outside help, any chance of obtaining medical care. Worst of all, they often suffered sexual violence. A neighbor brings a child-headed household food. In the evening her husband comes to claim payment. Again and again the voices, the whispers, the sighs, the tears and the words of the young people trapped in these places of poverty haunted me. Until finally, in Bulawayo, something in me broke so I could no longer see them as them and us as us. My children suffered. My community dying. My family on the edge.
When I came home to the Netherlands it took a psychologist and the love and patience of my friends and family to piece me back together again. I know that the HIV-infected teens I interviewed are long gone to a better place. But their extreme vulnerability, outbalanced by their voices became a part of who I am today: a researcher in peace and conflict studies, amplifying youth voice, as we find ways to work together and make this place more equitable, more inclusive, more just.
This second, current plague resonates—not the poor, not just Africa—this time it hit Europe first. If AIDS had hit us as hard as it hit them, I wonder what the response would have been. I dread the news that corona is spreading in countries without adequate health facilities, wracked by poverty. The vulnerable become even more vulnerable: Children, the poor, the marginalized. Who are we not hearing? Who are we not seeing? You think this is bad. Wait until the images of corona in sub-Saharan Africa reach us.
I hear your impatient Dutch voices: What does this have to do with the UvA? Ask who are the vulnerable in our university community and you will find the ones hardest hit by this pandemic. Young people (students) without jobs, those of us struggling against depression and traumas triggered by the fear, health professionals and their families, parents of young children, the elderly—now more alone than ever, the poor, the marginalized, and the ones who struggle anyway. They struggle harder now.
Ask yourselves who they are in your circles, then ask them how they are, then listen, then ask what they need. “What do you propose?” is one of my favorite questions, so much more empowering than the assuming-superiority “How can I help you?”
And maybe we could flip this crisis into an opportunity. While we’re learning to demand less of one another and cultivate understanding and kindness, compassion and empathy, maybe we will become too tired to maintain the walls we throw up to separate them from us, migrants, foreigners, left, right, mainstream, niche, and maybe we can think of ourselves in terms of open and closed. An open society. An open community. An open mind.
As Gabriel García Márquez wrote, “Today, when I saw you, I realized that what is between us is nothing more than an illusion.”