"Me and my feet are here in town...."
Her name is Siko. She is shy when she meets you. She steals glances at you from the corner of her eye and answers in a soft voice when you ask her a question. But don’t be fooled—she is observing everything you are saying and doing.
In the evening, when she is sitting around the fire with her mother, father, grandmother, and cousins, she will share her opinion of you, telling little vignettes about who you are, what you said, and how you said it.
She is a precocious little girl, growing up in a small village in southwestern Zimbabwe, where I was born and raised.
Siko is about two-and-a-half years old—about ten months younger than my own son, Khaya. I first met her in 2007 when she was a few weeks old. I didn’t see her again until my most recent visit in late 2009. I was immediately taken by her radiant smile and curious eyes.
Khaya and I spent a week in my home village, and when we traveled to the city of Bulawayo, we decided to take Siko with us. For the first time in her life, she was riding in a car and experiencing the big city. “Me and my feet are here in town,” she would say each morning. “Siko’s mom is working in the fields. Siko’s father is left in the rural village,” she would chatter, laughing all the while.
But now, the image of Siko laughing and playing with Khaya, haunts me.
Just three weeks after we left Zimbabwe and said goodbye to her, Siko’s father died. He was HIV-positive. He was a quiet and hardworking young man in his mid-20s. Always clean and well groomed. He and Siko’s mother lived with his mother, his sister, and her children. In a sense, he was the breadwinner of that household. His own father died a few years ago—some say he died due to an AIDS-related illness. His sister’s husband is also thought to have died from AIDS. But no one knows for sure.
In this village, there is no clinic; no HIV/AIDS testing. But it’s not that people don’t know about this devastating disease. This community—my rural home—has been devastated by it.
Each time I come back to visit, I hear about any number of people who have died or are slowly wasting away because of HIV/AIDS. Few have access to antiretroviral treatment. Most can’t afford to travel to the district hospital, more than 30 miles away. And even if they somehow manage it, the most they can expect is to be treated for their opportunistic, secondary infections. Typically, they get nothing more than over-the-counter pain medication.
I don’t know the story of how Siko’s father contracted HIV/AIDS. I only know that today, Siko’s life is much different than it was a few months ago. There is a lot of uncertainty. I imagine that Siko’s mother, herself an orphan brought up by her grandmother, is wondering what is next for her and her two children. If her parents were alive, she would likely return to her home. For now, she continues to live as a member of her mother-in-law’s household.
I don’t know what will happen to Siko. I know that she is loved. She has a community around her: people who know her, know her life story, and know the joy of her bubbling laughter. It is through the love and support of her family and her community that she will have the opportunity to go to school, eat three meals a day, and play with other children her own age. It is through the collective effort of community that Siko still has a chance to lead a better life.
But for now, I imagine that she keeps asking where her father is and why he has not come back. Perhaps she makes up little stories that he is in the city—the city she and “her feet” have visited. And, of course, that tomorrow he will come home.
I don’t know what the trajectory of her life will be. I only know that I believe that she deserves no less than the opportunities that my own son, Khaya, is likely to have. But I also know that in many ways, for Siko, nothing is guaranteed. Her future depends on the goodwill of extended family and community members.
And so, I get up every day and come to work. Sometimes, I push even harder to make sure that we get that grant out to the small grassroots organization in the remote village in Tanzania. And every day, I try to encourage others to understand the life-changing difference that community-based organizations make in the lives of so many children across Africa.
Because I know that Siko is far from being the only one: there are millions more children whose lives have been seriously affected by HIV/AIDS and poverty.
In the long run, their only hope lies in the family and community members who embrace them. And the most important way that we can help is to strengthen those families and communities that are doing their best to make sure their children have a brighter future.