Sunday, 4 January 2015

Orphaned by AIDS: The World Has Already Forgotten About You

It was a sparkling morning, the sun piercing and the sky a brilliant blue.  Mountains pushed up all around us as the ever- present Basotho people went about their business on the hills and in the valleys.  Today, their main focus and the focus of 90 % of the country’s population was to get to church where they will spend upwards of 5 hours in praise and worship, prayer and thanksgiving.

We arrived to an empty church.  The service I attended here months before was in a very small and narrow building which now sits above this new, much larger, much brighter sanctuary.  The new structure has walls, a roof and a floor but only a few windows in place.  Windows are expensive and the remaining frames will sit open to the coming winter until next year when the church may be able to gather the funds to fill them.  On this sunny, early fall day, the open-air effect was quiet appealing and comfortable. 

We were ushered to a front row of seats draped decoratively in fine linen.  There we sat as the place slowly filled to capacity.  My thoughts wandered. 

This room is a beautiful airy space.  It feels like God himself floats in and out of the unfinished windows.  Joy flows freely among these people when they gather here.  Joy, passion, life, goodwill.  I feel calm, free of anxiety.  I feel at peace.  My body relaxes.  I take it all in.  There is no schedule, no rush, no place else to be and nothing that needs to be done;  in the moment, a place I rarely embrace.

This Sunday was children’s day.  Hundreds of children sat opposite us on the other side of the pulpit.  They sat for hours, listening, singing, cheering and raising their arms in the air;  multi- coloured shirts and shorts contrasting their dark and deeply beautiful skin, hair kept short for school and brilliant, dazzling smiles….. I think this is when my disconnection started.  No where else in my lifetime had I seen so many achingly beautiful children. 

Heart aching, I skillfully dodged my emotions. I am trained to disconnect:

“I must not get close to you.  I must not engage with you.  I must keep my distance from you for secretly I know, your pain and suffering is a burden that I could never bare.  Secretly I fear, that despite my best intentions and any huge efforts I make, I may be impotent to do anything about your lot in life. You are the orphans of Africa.  The world has a very short attention span.  The world has already forgotten about you."

There were hundreds of wrapped presents lining one wall of the church.   They looked odd sitting there.  This was March and I was pretty certain that each gift was wrapped in Christmas paper.   As the service closed the pastor announced that the children had been waiting long enough.  It was now time for each of them to receive their Christmas gift.   I’d say.  It had been 4 hours.  Actually, given that this was March, these kids had waited about three months.  These gifts had made their way from Ireland.  A hold up at some border crossing had delayed this shipment of gifts and so, these children had to wait until March to celebrate Christmas.

I am sure that is OK with all of you.  These poverty stricken, orphaned and ill children deserve to wait until March……right?  

Music started and the room was filled with an upbeat praise and worship song.  It played over and over again.   There were at least 250 children and waiting for them was a gift labeled with each child's name.  One by one, every single name was called and every child stood up to receive their gift.  It took two hours.  Some sat beside their gift, some sat on their gift and others guarded their gifts on their laps......for two hours.  I would imagine this is the one gift they get each year and sadly, many millions more cannot even hope for one.  But there they sat, waiting.  So beautiful, so patient.


And then the count down..10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1….GO.

I stood frozen as 250 Christmas gifts were ripped open, loud music now mixed with screams of joy and laughter.  Sheer joy.  Sheer laughter.  A pair of sunglasses for him.  A stuffed animal for her.  A golden purse to hold pretty things.  A glow in the dark necklace.  A pair of pink ear muffs.  A beautiful doll in a pink dress held triumphantly for all to see;  I watched as my travelling companions smothered themselves in wrapping paper, Christmas gifts and very happy children.  They were totally immersed, unabashedly joyful.

I watched and remained disconnected, arms folded in stubborn defiance.  I will not feel this joy.  I will not smile.  I will not engage with these kids because they just might break my heart.

My stubborn defiance and refusal to connect comes from a very deep place.  It is a place in my soul where I believe that each child should feel joy everyday.  Where I believe that Christmas should come on Christmas Day for everyone.  Where I believe that a world that has essentially forgotten these children can be gently reminded of how important it is to re-engage and stay focused despite the multitude of distractions and comforts that make us forget so easily.  It is a place in my soul that I protect from any overwhelming emotion.  

Stay focused.  There is a job to do.  Don't let the pain of their suffering stop you from doing something about it.

I lingered a bit as the church emptied.  It was really tough to leave that room, to leave this remarkable moment, to leave these forgotten children.

Today, more than 2 years later, I am dreading the annual task of taking the ornaments off the Christmas tree.  Another season is over and tomorrow I will head back to the busyness of my life.   I think of these kids as I head into 2015.  Next year will be different for them.  On a plot of land right beside that sanctuary where I lingered, we will build a clinic.  Two and a half years later, in that deep place buried with my defiance and my deepest emotion, I see a vision of you, of all of us sharing in that moment of celebration and joy.  You and me and all those children.  Despite the world's short memory, despite all of the obstacles and despite all of the people who have given up and walked away believing the situation was hopeless, we have found a way forward and nothing can stop us now.

Brings a resolute smile to my face which I have been saving, just for them.

Dr. Anne-Marie Zajdlik MD CCFP O. Ont.
Founder of Bracelet of Hope
Photos by our very talented Sharon Barker.

Our third annual World AIDS Day event raised over $50,000 with our crowd funding campaign sitting at just over $14,000.  Click here. Let's build this clinic.

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