Family histories in a shoebox

Published December 1, 2002

"He has forgotten or never knew how to be a baby."


“I wonder who would be interested in this set of silverware,” Mum said, polishing a fork before a recent family dinner. Dad was elsewhere in the house trying to load up my eldest brother with some of his future inheritance — a magnificent old dictionary, a globe bought for him some 35 years ago by my grandfather, and other gewgaws.

It seems both my parents are thinking ahead about what they would like to pass along when they, well, pass along.

My family’s heirlooms are scattered throughout the family house: odd bits of furniture, china, untouchable crystal, the Bible with our modest genealogy inside. There are albums of photographs from my mother’s and even my grandfather’s youth. Generally, I know the provenance of these items, their stories.

I didn’t meet the man in the Tumelong AIDS hospice, but I was honoured and also embarrassed to get a glimpse into his life. I remember thinking, “This is what grace is all about.” His life was being documented in a memory box. Some of his memories were carefully noted in a small booklet, loose sheets of paper, tied with cheerful little bows of yarn.

The 35-bed hospice in Winterveldt township on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa is the last stop for many AIDS patients from the area. The average stay ranges from less than a day to two weeks. Hospice staff also do home visits and train families in home-care so patients can stay home as long as possible.

Patients are encouraged to prepare a memory box for the children they will leave behind, said program manager Mary-Ann Carpenter as she gently picked through an unfinished box. Typically, the shoeboxes contain the patient’s family tree, details of where he came from, collections of family stories, photographs and keepsakes.

Patients are encouraged to write remembrances of their children. “You laughed when I …” “When you were a baby, you …”

Many patients do not know where their children will end up. Most hope family and friends will take them, but many African families are too poor to take on someone else’s children. There is a growing number of families headed by children.

African churches are trying to change this. Changing attitudes toward the disease and those afflicted by it is a challenge. Offering support to extended families and friends who take in AIDS orphans is a way of demonstrating leadership.

Down the road from the AIDS hospice is a cheery building with dozens of children, most age five or under, spilling out the doors. Some of the older ones — little more than toddlers themselves — carry babies on their backs, skilfully mimicking grown women’s simple baby slings from whatever fabric is handy.

Other children hang from monkey bars and take spins on the merry-go-round that is ingeniously connected to a well; each turn of the equipment pumps well water into a storage tank.

One little boy, about a year old, sits up on the monkey bars (nobody can really say how he got so high), his face an absolute blank.

I make faces at him, play with his toes, try to take his photograph and his face does not change. Something is deadened in this sweet-faced little boy; he has either forgotten or he never knew how to be a baby.

The orphans’ haven, like the AIDS hospice, falls under the Tumelong Mission umbrella, the diocese of Pretoria’s mission for community development. Tumelong was started in 1939 and its programs continue to evolve. The haven opened in January 2001 and has about 500 children on its register. About 90 preschool children attend during the week and about 200 school-age children come on the weekend; the haven gets 10 to 15 referrals a month.

The haven was intended to relieve the burden of caregivers who have taken in AIDS orphans.

The program gives caregivers a break and provides children with breakfast, lunch and snacks, some preschool education and what staff call holistic care: physical, spiritual, emotional. Staff offer grief and bereavement counselling for the children, some of whom may not have known or understood how their parents died. Some are HIV-positive themselves.

Many of these children are on the receiving end of the memory boxes put together in the nearby AIDS hospice.

Tumelong is just one example of the church’s work on the AIDS front.

The Anglican Church of Tanzania spends as much time on changing attitudes toward those afflicted with HIV/AIDS as it does on prevention. There, more than half a million children have lost a parent to AIDS since 1997. By the end of 2001, 1.3 million Tanzanians were living with HIV/AIDS.

Africa is losing a generation to the AIDS pandemic and without intervention, the generations left behind are in jeopardy.

Young adults who normally would be helping out their aging parents are instead sick or dead. The country’s very infrastructure is collapsing because workers are sick and dying. At any time, up to a third of the workforce is absent from work due to illness or funerals.

A recent international Anglican gathering in London heard Rev. Ted Karpf, canon missioner for HIV/AIDS in the church province of Southern Africa say that “there are no words” to express the magnitude and consequences of the pandemic in Africa. By 2010 there will be 25 million orphans.

Last June, Canada’s Stephen Lewis, the United Nations special envoy on HIV/AIDS, told another gathering of African religious leaders that “Comparisons with the Black Death of the 14th century are wishful thinking. When AIDS has run its course ? if it ever runs its course — it will be seen as an annihilating scourge that dwarfs everything that has gone before.”

Ultimately, said Mr. Lewis, in the wake of the pandemic will be “millions of children whose lives are a torment of loneliness, despair, rage, bewilderment and loss.”

The Tumelong hospice and orphans haven are committed to the care of people living with and dying of AIDS, to the orphans they leave behind and to the preservation of those families’ memories.

I know my family’s stories. Time will tell if the churches have the will and the ability to ensure that a generation of children in Africa will say the same.

First of two parts.


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