Saturday, February 2, 2008

A Child Named Rosie

Depending on who you ask, the HIV/AIDS rate among Tanzanians runs between ten and 40 percent. I will never be confident in any figure that is released by the Tanzanian government, and there is no way to confirm all the he said, she said numbers I hear from the flocks of aid workers we come across on a regular basis who "know" Africa so well. But the fact remains: UKIMWI, just like the mass of African children without access to semi-decent education, is a serious issue in this part of the world.

Between ten and 40 percent. Think about those figures. Even the low ball estimate would mean there's one Magic Johnson on every team in the nonexistent Tanzanian NBA -- and possibly even a starting five of Magic's, if you go with the max figure. You'd think that with 67 Tanzanian kids placed in school in this, The Foundation For Tomorrow's first year of existence as an officially registered NGO, we'd have more than just one child infected with HIV, just by chance alone. But we don't, because most of the orphanages from which we draw our students don't even accept AIDS cases.

Rose is unique.

Meghann's co-founder of TFFT developed a special bond with her a few years back, when she was assigned to volunteer at Rose's orphanage during her first trip to Tanzania. It was Emily that first took Rose to get tested. It was Emily that discovered why Rose was so sick at the time; why she could barely even muster the energy to move her limbs. And it is Emily's family that sponsors Rose today. Rose, it turned out, had been dealt the double blow: no parents, no chance to live a normal life.

She was born with UKIMWI.

I say "Rose" because that's how her name is written. But in East Africa, where 99 percent of words are given an "ee" sound at the end, she answers to Rosie. And that's how I'm writing it from here on out: Rosie.

I have somewhat a unique relationship with Rosie, one that that I don't have with any of our other students. Every month, on the appointed day according to her light blue, government issued UKIMWI card, I take her into Arusha Town for her visit to the AIDS clinic at St. Elizabeth Hospital, so she can receive her free multivitamins and get a quick check up from a doctor. Is her weight staying consistent? Has she developed a cough or a cold? Any signs of fatigue?

Basically, is she keepin' on until the next time she can get her CD4 levels measured, something that happens once every six months? Taking her into that doctor's office every month makes you realize how precious life really is, and how much we all take it for granted. She's a little kid. And she's not going to have to worry about "what she wants to be when she grows up," because, unlike Magic Johnson, she's not going to have access to the type of care that will make that scenario plausible. It's the reality of the world, and of the role the almighty dollar plays in the world. The least we can do is give her as much happiness as possible in her short time on earth.

Rosie goes to a school with a ton of other children her age. She gets fed three times a day. And she's been blessed with the opportunity of a free education at a school that blows her other options -- overcrowded government schools with teacher-to-student ratios more in line with the preacher-to-couples ratio at a Reverend Sun Myung Moon Madison Square Garden mass wedding -- out of the water. And yet when I look at her, almost never do I feel warm inside. I feel sad.

She doesn't smile very often. I often wonder why. Is she aware of what it means to have this terrible disease? Does she realize the full extent of its finality? Or is she just shy? A normal, wide-eyed, six-year-old little girl who doesn't know how to act around these two Wazungu strangers? It's impossible to know. I don't think I've ever gotten her to muster more than a two word response whenever I try to engage her in conversation, even though I speak nothing but Swahili to her. Rosie will show me a few snippets of a smile, but that is usually about it. The picture above is maybe the only time I've seen her outright laughing.

It's a helpless feeling for me, a person who uses humor as a way to deal with almost every situation. If I can't make someone laugh, especially a six-year-old kid like Rosie, it's tough. But Hunter and I, we do our best.

"Rosie, umeshakula ice cream? Au milkshake?" I asked from the driver's seat of our car after our last visit to the clinic. Have you ever eaten ice cream? Or a milkshake?

"Hapana," she whispered, shaking her head, not taking her eyes off the windshield.

"KAMWE?!" Never?!

Just another head shake. She's not a talker, Rosie.

"Wow," I said, using a rare English word that might not even actually be a word. "Twende basi." Let's go.

Even her first taste of a chocolate milkshake, though -- which are INCREDIBLE at this place in town called McMoody's -- didn't elicit any kind of smile. So we tried making weird faces.


Still, hamna.

But she definitely put a dent in that milkshake. And you know she liked it.

Rosie. For the rest of my days, whenever I hear that name, I will remember how I feel every time I go to pick her up to take her to the clinic. Sadness, guilt, anger (but towards whom?), longing to be able to do something that is beyond my control ... it's not just one emotion. It's complicated.

But it's not all sadness and angst. She is alive right now. And she'll continue to live for the foreseeable future. Her life is a reminder to us all not that life is worthless if it can't be lived until you're old and gray, but that it is something that is happening right here and now. Maybe she isn't aware of how serious her condition is, but if she isn't, it's almost an even better lesson for the rest of us. She does smile sometimes, after all. Like yesterday: I caught a glimpse of her teeth for just a nanosecond, but they were there. We have a special relationship, Rosie and I. I think she feels the same way. And I think she secretly loves going to the clinic with me, even though she tries to hide it.

But that could be because she knows she'll get a milkshake out of it, too. She's just a six-year-old kid, after all.

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