Eating an Elephant

I’m watching an elephant being eaten, one bite at a time.

That’s one of the real takeaways from my trip to Kenya a week ago. The “elephant” is the AIDS pandemic which was overwhelming much of sub-Saharan Africa a decade ago.

On this latest trip, we were primarily visiting water-related programs, but along the way we also visited a group of PLWHAs or “PLEW-ahs”, People Living With HIV and AIDS. The group was formed both for support and to provide a way for these outcasts to make a living. They were banding together for an income-generating activity—grinding corn (maize), thanks to a grant from World Vision which provided the grinder. This group has 66 members who take turns working at the grinding mill, and 142 children are benefitting as a result. Not only that, but these people with the virus are now providing a service to their community and generating resources instead of draining their community’s resources.

We talked with them about the stigma they experience (“sometimes other kids aren’t allowed to play with our children”), about the availability of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs, about their business… and we prayed together. It was yet another special experience with precious people, loved by God, yet suffering from HIV/AIDS.

But what was most notable was what we didn’t experience. I saw it, but those with me couldn’t.

So I had to explain to my fellow travelers what it was like to visit PLWHAs just 8 or 9 years ago, before ARVs, before sensitization training against stigma, before testing for the virus was generally accessible, before President Bush’s AIDS Initiative. Back then, I said, we often were visiting AIDS patients “on bed”, which usually meant they were lying on the ground, if not under a tree outside the house. Their tears came so easily as these sallow victims told of being cast out of their own homes by spouses and children, or as they begged siblings or parents to care for their too-soon-to-be orphaned children. It was such a terrible scourge, with terrible suffering and terrible stigma and shame. It’s hard now even to imagine that this was happening in the 21st century, under our watch, and that these were things I had personally witnessed in multiple countries and settings.

I had to explain all these dynamics to first-time visitors who had never experienced them. It was astounding to realize that, in my last three trips visiting those with HIV and AIDS, the experience was much more related to “living positively” than to dying with some dignity. This is truly an amazing improvement in less than a decade. There is still some stigma, fear and a lack of understanding. But the level of rejection is measurably diminishing, to the point that customers were willing to let the group’s members grind the corn their families would cook and consume. The PLWHAs were thin and dull-eyed, but they were all standing, walking and attending our gathering. There are still doors closed to them and rejection in the workplace, but they’ve embraced a new way to generate income as a group, to keep working and to provide for their families with the sweat of their brows. They may need transportation help to access medications, but those are generally available for most who need and want them. I expect these PLWHAs will still die of complications from the virus, but now they are living for years and are able to raise their children toward the safety of adulthood in the meantime.

It’s stunning, really, to think of the overwhelming mountain that loomed in front of us ten years ago, and how these improvements are gradually but steadily showing themselves in numerous ways and countries. I’m experiencing it incrementally but clearly each time in my own travels, not just reading statistics about it.

It’s also surreal in a way. I could hardly believe the stories I was sharing with my fellow travelers about the situations I experienced in the early years of the last decade. So recent and yet so ancient as to sound like I’d lived during the Black Plague. In fact, I suppose in some ways we did. I read recently that during the Plague, some regions actually lost over half of their inhabitants. One man wrote during that no one cried anymore over individual deaths—they were all themselves just waiting to die. I couldn’t even imagine the sense of hopelessness, despair and doom. And I wasn’t at all surprised to read that there was a widespread belief during that era that the world itself was about to end.

Despair tinged with hopelessness was bleeding through the strong social fabric of African communities a decade ago too, and plenty of us bystanders were ready to finally give up on Africa rather than deal with this overwhelming crisis. It’s completely shameful that we “rich nation” peoples would allow something like this to go on. Of course, a small Gideon’s Army of people like Rich Stearns, Kay Warren and Lynne Hybels sounded the alarm and helped change our tolerance into intolerance. And from a Kingdom perspective, President Bush’s tripling of funding to combat the global AIDS pandemic may have been his greatest foreign policy achievement, as he brought tremendous resources to bear in fighting this battle.

Finally, it was a bit shocking to have to explain these things to my first-time fellow travelers, to be reminded of how few people even ten years later really understand what happened—and is still happening, albeit to a lesser degree. The facts were painful to conjure up; the feelings, impossible. Like soldiers returned from the front who can’t begin to adequately explain to the folks back home what it was actually like to experience the decisive battle which saved their city. Yet all the same, what a privilege to be able to say “Yes, I served; I was a foot soldier in that battle.”

Of course, the battle isn’t over, but I can report from my last few visits to the frontlines that the battle is turning, the tide is shifting, the dawn is coming.

If you ask me, the glass is half full. The elephant is half eaten.

August 2011

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