On one of my first days in Africa, we pulled up to a brightly painted cement-block school building in the rural village of Tala, Kenya. Sixty children from Mama Darlene Children’s Centre, all orphans and youngsters with disabilities in red-checked uniforms, raised their arms and greeted us with welcome songs in English and Swahili. I was so overcome by this little sea of children that I began to cry.
That scene in 2004 would plant the seed for a book, Face to Face: Children of the AIDS Crisis in Africa, which I produced with my longtime friend, documentary photographer Karen Ande. Karen had made her first foray to Africa a few years earlier, and seeing the devastation of AIDS, had become committed to helping affected families and children. She had linked up with several Firelight grantee-partners, including Mama Darlene, documenting their work in photos that would later be exhibited around the Bay Area.
She persuaded me to join her and together we would return to Africa several times. We hiked through the back alleyways of Kibera,Nairobi'snotorious slum, visiting with teenage girls who had nursed their parents in their last days and were now caring for multiple siblings under the strain of acute poverty. In the town of Naivasha, we visited 13-year-old Esther, who was caring for her mother, a wasted slip of a woman in the last throes of AIDS, and her 3 brothers, all starved for food, comfort and life's essentials. We also spent time with activists - remarkable local people who had rescued these youngsters and were transforming their lives.
It was an experience that would dramatically change my view of the world – and I wanted to bring that new perspective to American audiences in the hope that they might better understand this ongoing human catastrophe and be moved to help (book proceeds go to organizations, like Firelight, dedicated to helping Africa’s children).
Since the book’s publication in 2010, Karen and I have presented more than 50 slideshow/talks to various groups – book store audiences, churches and synagogues, schools, and civic organizations. We found it’s not easy to attract people to a talk on AIDS and Africa; as one reviewer wrote, he was afraid to open the book on his desk for months, expecting nothing but depressing tales of disease and death. But ultimately he found it uplifting, for it showed the faces of smiling children and the good that can emerge from people in times of crisis. And so it has been with people at our talks, who often tell us they feel grateful and inspired to hear the stories of children whose lives changed dramatically because of programs like Mama Darlene.
Karen and I also have had some little triumphs along the way. In addition to some excellent newspaper reviews, we experienced our first live TV and radio interviews. We were graciously toasted by Rep. Anna Eshoo in the Congressional Record
for our “extraordinary work.” Karen also celebrated her win of the 2010 Global Vision competition of the World Affairs Council with a solo exhibit at the group’s San Francisco headquarters. And most recently, we were thrilled to receive an Eric Hoffer award
, which recognizes independent books of exceptional merit.
Through it all, we have always kept the children in mind – and hope that through our efforts, some good will come to those of Africa who have been so deeply affected by the AIDS crisis.
Firelight thanks Ruthann for this guest blog post and both her and Karen's contribution to supporting African communities to combat HIV, AIDS, and poverty to improve children's well-being. It's global communities like ours that make change possible.
Ruthann Richter has been writing about medical issues, including HIV/AIDS, since the early 1980’s. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University and has received awards for her reporting from the American Cancer Society, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. She first traveled to Africa in 2004, when she became gripped by the human devastation of AIDS and felt compelled to help through her writings, presentations and fundraising. In addition to her Africa projects, she is the director of media relations at Stanford University School of Medicine, where she works with media from around the world and covers HIV/AIDS issues. She lives in Palo Alto, Calif., with her husband, Jay, and daughter, Shaina.
Karen Ande has been chronicling the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa since 2002. She has traveled extensively as a volunteer with NGO’s in Kenya and Rwanda, photographing community-based projects and the people they serve. Whether working in rural villages or city slums, she has been moved and inspired by the people who daily face the challenges of AIDS and its impact on those they know and love. Not content to observe, she and her collaborator, Ruthann Richter, have raised funds to help support the people and projects you will meet in these pages. Her photographs have been featured widely in newspapers, magazines, the Web, television and in solo exhibits. Karen lives with her husband, Jeff Johnson, and two cats, Morani and Magnificat, in San Francisco, Calif.