What Will Become of Africa’s AIDS Orphans? part 1
New York Times Magazine
December 22, 2002
Four years ago, a fifth grader in my children's elementary school in Atlanta lost his father in a twin-engine private plane crash. The terrible news whipped through the community; hundreds attended the funeral. Even today, there is a wisp of tragedy about the tall, blond high-school freshman -- fatherless, at so young an age. I find myself thinking about him when surveying the playground of one of the countless hole-in-the-wall orphanages of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Behind corrugated iron walls off a dirt road, schoolgirls in donated clothing are throwing pebbles and waggling their long legs out behind them in hopscotch. Other girls sit on kitchen chairs in the shade of a cement wall, braiding and rebraiding one another's hair. They weave in plastic beads in arrangements so tight that the completed hairdo looks like an abacus. Boys lope back and forth with a half-deflated soccer ball.
Virtually all of these children have lost both parents, most to AIDS. Malaria, yellow fever and especially TB are fatal illnesses here, too. ..:namespace prefix = v ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:vml" />..:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />..:namespace prefix = w ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:word" />The children's grandparents have also died or are too poor and sick to care for the children; the same is true of their aunts and uncles, their neighbors and teachers. But no single one of these children has been isolated by tragedy: being orphaned is one of the common experiences of their generation. Ethiopia has one of the world's largest populations infected with H.I.V. and AIDS. The number of AIDS orphans in Ethiopia is estimated at a million, most of whom end up living on the streets.
But in a hierarchy among orphans, those here at Layla House are the most fortunate. They are H.I.V. negative and healthy, and they have landed in one of two excellent American adoption programs in this city, both generating high interest among prospective adoptive parents in the United States. But they have been plucked out of immeasurable tragedy.
''This is the most devastating pandemic to sweep the earth for many centuries,'' says Dr. Mark Rosenberg, executive director of the Atlanta-based Task Force for Child Survival and Development. He compares the moral imperative to stop the epidemic in Africa, Asia and South America to the era of the Holocaust and imagines that future generations will ask, ''What did you do to help?''
When I visit one on one with some of the children in a cool cinder-block storeroom, I discover that each is more like the fatherless Atlanta boy than not. As a group, the children generate a carefree mood of ruckus and play, but their secret grief coexists with the brave frolicking. Being orphaned may be typical for their peer group, but it pierces each child in a uniquely tragic way. The boys and girls remember and long for their prior lives, their deceased families, their homes -- whether middle-class house or rural hut -- and their childhoods that once were normal.
Yemisrach is a big-boned, innocent-faced 15- or 16-year-old. ''I live with my parents until age 9,'' she says. ''We are two girls, two boys. First Mother died; then Father died of malaria. I become like a mother to the others.''
Though they try to hold onto their memories, it is possible that the children don't have all of their facts straight. But no one is left to correct them, and the child becomes the family historian.
''My father drink too much, and he fall on the gate, and he get a stone on his head, and he went to the hospital and died,'' says sweet, worried-looking Yirgalem, whose forehead is too creased for his young age. ''After that, he buried.''
Robel is a rambunctious 8-year-old of the half-baked-schoolwork type. It is easy to picture him as a bike-riding, Nintendo-loving American boy. He has surmised that hospital treatment killed his mother. ''I was born in Tigray,'' he says, speaking through a translator like most of the younger kids. ''Then went with my parents to Sudan as refugees. My father would get food from the refugee camp and bring it to the house. Mother died in Sudan. She went to hospital for injection. First injection is good; second time, she is tired; third injection, she died. Then I hear people crying about father. They said, 'Your father has died.'
''My small sister, Gelila, is 4. When Gelila see something in my hand, she cry, so I give her. She does not remember our parents.''
There is a terrible sameness to the stories. They all head down the same path: the mother's death, then the father's; or Father died, then Mother, then Small Sister, then funny Baby Brother. Alone, bringing out the words of the family's end, a child's eyes fill with tears; the chest fills with sobs. Bedtime is the worst, when all shenanigans die down. At night, ghosts and visions and bad dreams visit the children. Through the open windows, you can hear kids crying into their pillows.
The orphans are not confined to the cities. In small farming towns hundreds of miles outside of Addis Ababa, children rush cars, offering flip-flops, bars of soap, packages of tissue or tree branches heavy with nuts. Those with nothing to sell offer labor: they will wash your windshield or watch your car for you if you park it. Some of these children are, at very young ages, the sole wage earner for their families. Orphaned in the countryside, they have migrated to the villages and towns where they have become squatters, trying to feed themselves and their younger siblings in alley dwellings improvised from scrap lumber or cloth or plastic. ''Almost without exception, children orphaned by AIDS are marginalized, stigmatized, malnourished, uneducated and psychologically damaged,'' Carol Bellamy, executive director of Unicef, said last month in Namibia. ''They are affected by actions over which they have no control and in which they had no part. They deal with the most trauma, face the most dangerous threats and have the least protections. And because of all this, they, too, are very likely to become H.I.V. positive.'' She warned that the growing numbers of AIDS orphans means that the world will see ''an explosion in the number of child prostitutes, children living on the streets and child domestic workers.'' Eight-year-old Mekdalawit, from Dire Dawa, living in Layla House, remembers the days of her parents' deaths: ''My sister Biruktawit is a baby lying on the floor with her feet in the air -- like this. Our older sister throw herself in front of the car and scream and yell that she wants to die if our father is dead. Then our mother becomes so ill that she cannot move from her bed. She cannot eat, and she has sores all over her body, and she loves for us to gently scratch her skin.'' Mekdalawit and Biruktawit's eight older siblings tried to raise them, but they were obliged to leave home each day for school and for jobs. Worried that the youngest two would wander away from the family hut and be lost, the older children warned that monsters would catch and eat little girls if they didn't stay inside. Finally a few of the oldest brought the youngest two to the local authorities, who referred them to the Children, Youth and Family Affairs Department, known as the Children's Commission. It placed them in Layla House. The older sisters tearfully promised to visit, but their village is far from the capital.
Enat House in Addis Ababa, not far from Layla House, is run by a husband and wife, Gezahegn Wolde Yohannes and Atsedeweyen Abraham. The children who live here are all H.I.V. positive, the smallest victims of the continent's collision with H.I.V./AIDS: not only have they lost their mothers and fathers and siblings, but they themselves are sick. Some of them have begun to lose their hair; others are frighteningly thin; others have facial sores; and all but the babies and toddlers know precisely, in grim detail, what that means. At Enat, the first clue that the health of another child has taken a downward turn is the child's refusal to enter into the games and exercises she enjoyed last week. A child sitting listlessly on the curb at this playground is an awful omen. The day I visit Enat (an Amharic word for ''mother''), the directors and the teachers are mourning the death of a 6-year-old boy a few days earlier. But on the dirt playground, shaded by eucalyptus trees, the little girls weave one another's hair, and the children are awaiting a visit from their beloved guitar-playing P.E. teacher. The homey sour smell of injera -- the national bread, a spongy sourdough flat pancake -- rises from an outdoor brick kitchen. Later, in a sunny, freshly mopped dining hall, the children seat themselves at long tables for an art class. A glass vase of cut flowers sparkles with clean water on a tabletop. The children from rural areas never have seen scissors before, and their fingers wiggle with eagerness when the teacher begins handing out brightly colored plastic scissors. Yes, there are enough -- Christ Lutheran Church of Forest Hills, Pa., sent plenty in their boxes of donations. Following instructions, the children generate a blizzard of paper scraps in their first attempts to form snowflakes. (They have never seen snowflakes either). Stocky little Bettye is a pint-size Ethel Merman with a husky belly laugh and a booming voice. She pokes her tongue out the corner of her mouth as she scissors, in classic kindergarten style. The children hold up their lopsided constructions for one another to see, and they hoot in surprise.
The teacher, a slim woman in a long brown dress and head scarf, murmurs words of praise and often bends to stroke a child on the cheek, a gesture of calming affection. Later, I watch a music class, which consists of much hands-on-hip swaying and jumping under the guidance of the guitar-playing young P.E. teacher. Bettye belts out the words of the songs and jerks her fat little tush around. Eyob is a handsome, endearing boy in baggy brown pants and loafers, who slightly stalls his hand claps and foot-stomps till the last moment of each beat; I think he is inventing swing. But Eyob's hair is coming out in tufts. So is Bettye's. And there are no older children at this house; there are no older H.I.V.-positive children at all.