Hello my friends and family..
I am beginning my third week here in Dodoma. I’ve spent the past 4 or 5 days with the family of one of the social workers here, Mariam, in an area called Kinsasa. It’s been a little different! Going to work each day is quite a journey. We have to walk down a long dirt path, maybe twenty minutes, until we reach the main road. There, we wait for a dala dala (a taxi-van into which as many people as possible are crammed) or just hitch a ride with some random person, or in the back of a police truck.. for the 15 minute ride into town. There, we still have to walk to the church which is maybe another 20 minutes. Mariam does this every day. She is quite the woman.
Yesterday, I tried to help the girls here cook dinner. I must tell you, we take so many things for granted with our pre-packaged food.. instant microwave meals.. even the stoves we cook with! In order to cook rice, plain white rice, you have to sort through all the grains with your fingers to pick out all the little pebbles that get mixed in. Then, you have to rinse out the pieces of chaff (which takes a while). Only then are the grains actually ready to be cooked. They’re put in a pot of water over glowing charcoal. Then you wait. Everything is cooked over charcoal. It takes way more work than just switching on a burner. Even to get water to drink, it must be boiled first.
You can hear about how people live a thousand times, but you don’t really understand it until you’re living it too.
I have to tell you a story about a little girl. Her name is Victoria.
It was my first time meeting the Lahash kids, about two weeks ago. They’re a really great group of about 70 kids who get to take a break from bleak situations at home and spend each Friday afternoon at the program. As I was introduced to them, I looked from face to face, trying to get to know them.
I stopped at the wide eyes of a tiny little girl, sitting in the front row. Her eyes were the biggest thing about her. Her cheeks were sunken in, and two veins bulged on her forehead. Her limbs, just… skeletal. I had an instinctive idea about what was claiming this little girl’s health. Later, I found out that sadly, I was right.
If you look at a picture of Victoria from just a year ago, you see a big smile, showcasing baby teeth, bright eyes, glowing skin. A healthy child. Now, at 9 years old, I would have guessed that she was 6. As the rest of the children devoured their rice and beans, she passed hers off to another child. I tried to get her to smile and she barely parted her lips.
Victoria’s mother died from an opportunistic infection due to AIDs when she was 2 years old. During birth or breastfeeding, the virus was passed from mother to child, and now Victoria carries the virus that took her mother from her.
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It attacks the immune system, invading the cells that protect our bodies from disease, and turning them into replication centers, creating thousands of new viruses that do the same thing. So while our bodies can try to fight HIV by creating more immune cells, the virus replicates much faster and cannot be stopped. This makes the body extremely vulnerable to sicknesses it would normally be able to fight off easily. Once the CD4 (Immune system) cell count gets low enough, and there are certain diseases present that the body can no longer ward off, a person then has AIDs, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
All we knew was that Victoria was HIV positive, and being cared for by her aunt – an educated, somewhat well off woman. However, when we visited her house last Thursday, we found out that like way too many of these types of situations, the aunt is focusing on her own children, leaving her sick little niece to care for herself. Often, HIV positive children (or people in general) who are living with relatives are completely neglected because the in the family’s mind, they’re dying anyways.
Victoria oh-so quietly told Mariam that she can’t eat because her stomach hurts. Her head hurts too. Her nose is running and she has a congested cough. She hasn’t been to school for an entire month. She says she is responsible for taking her own medicine. By that, I hope she means antiretrovirals, which she should have access to through the programs. Antiretrovirals almost halt the replication of HIV, so although they cannot destroy the virus, they can suppress it, giving the immune system a chance to function properly. If Victoria is taking ARVs regularly though, she shouldn’t be in this condition. What worries me is that if the pills aren’t taken in a regular manner – if dosage is interrupted or stopped, then the virus may become resistant to them, and the medicine would no longer have any effect. Also, if the person is not eating well and living in unsanitary conditions, which is the case with Victoria, this compromises the immune system as well.
Today we went back to see Victoria. She had been throwing up and was too weak to change her clothes. Her cough shook her body. We took her to a clinic to see if we could find out what can be done to help her. People with HIV are supposed to go get a CD4 cell count done every month, and if the count too low to sustain their health, they are put on antiretrovirals. We found out that Victoria’s aunt has not been taking her in for these visits, and plagiarizing the doctor’s signature on the card that is supposed to verify her visits. They told us that we needed to take her to the hospital to have her chest x-rayed for tuberculosis, a disease which people who have HIV are particularly susceptible to.
For those of you who know my baby girl Hannah, she’s 4 years old and tiny. I could carry her for hours without getting tired. Victoria is twice Hannah’s age, and just as easy to carry. She sunk into your lap like a baby, too weak to hold her head up for long. Her x-ray came out with cloudiness in her lungs, a probable sign of TB. We’ll find out more about this and her CD4 count tomorrow.
Her name means Victory, yet her body is battling a virus which it will never defeat.
In a way, this story is heavier than others I have told you. It wouldn’t be so hard for her aunt to take her to the doctor, get her medicine, and feed her at the VERY least. When I carried her back to her aunt I would have rather kept her with me..
Ah. I don't know much else to say right now.
Look for pictures on Facebook, I'm having my mom post them for me.