When a lot of us think of AIDs, our first image is of Tom Hanks in the movie, Philadelphia. When we were back in Hollywood, my wife, Beth and a friend named Ron ran a support group for men with HIV. Today they are all dead. As a chaplain intern I sat with a 26 year old man when he died of AIDS. I have performed funerals for others, and recently, one member of my family died of lung cancer after a long struggle with HIV/AIDs.
Sometimes the images are a bit more encouraging, Magic Johnson comes to mind. Another friend of mine was diagnosed nearly twenty years ago and he is still living a meaningful life. When most of us picture the face of AIDS, we think of it as a male face. And in most cases it is.
As we traveled around Malawi, the lack of young men was evident. In Malawi, AIDS is so widespread amongst teenagers that it has brought the life-expectancy down to 38 years old. A haunting and burgeoning industry is “24 Hour” coffin shops.
But, in Africa, the face of AIDS is more and more female. (Worldwide about half the people with AIDS are female.) And even more devastating, it’s the face of a child. For years there has been a rampant myth in Africa that the way a man gets cured is to have sex with a virgin.
While in Malawi, we met a woman named Olipa who discovered that she has HIV when she went to give blood to her then anemic newborn. The baby was diagnosed with HIV also. While the story of Olipa and her baby Miriam is heart-rending (Miriam is only expected to live another year), it is also inspiring.
Olipa has become the face of women who are making a difference in waking the world to the widespread effect of AIDS. Using only a diet of fruits and vegetables that she grows, her health is actually improving. Ignoring the social stigma that often sends people with AIDS to die alone, often from starvation, outcast from their communities, Olipa started support groups for others. She now speaks to young people about the disease and how to avoid it. Her World Vision sponsors even sent her to the World AIDS Awareness day in Australia to speak out to gain support for those who are struggling with AIDS.
Olipa spoke to our group with eyes filled with both pride and sadness, with a soft, strong voice and with a the flash of a smile. She said that she thanked God for AIDS because it gave her a chance to help others. A World Vision newsletter article about her had this to say, “Olipa doesn't know how long she, or her small daughter, will live, and she is sad for her son's uncertain future without her. But she says that visiting the sick gives her strength to go on as long as she can. (Olipa adds,) ‘There are so many people suffering alone out there. By assisting them I am doing better work than if I had remained a farmer. I wouldn't have reached where I am if I didn't have HIV."
As our group prepared to leave, we flooded Olipa and Mirian with hugs, and gathered around her in prayer. From now on for me, the faces of AIDS includes a fragile little girl and a very strong mother.