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A bag of dried fish

2015-06-15 08:33

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Some years ago, I attended an International Conference on HIV/AIDS. At the time, I lived less than a mile away from the Conference Centre, so my food and accommodation were free. The majority of delegates from across the world stayed in the city’s expensive hotels.

Most of the Conference Centre staff could have guided delegates, had they wished, on a short walk through the overcrowded shanty compound where I worked and they lived. Many of their neighbours were sick or dying of AIDS.

Had the delegates visited the compound – incidentally, where the Minister of Health had herself never set foot - they would have heard the local bars blasting out music at full volume. They would have seen men drinking their meagre earnings, whilst their wives supported the family by selling vegetables at the roadside. Road gangs of women, many of them grandmothers, dug and repaired culverts in exchange for food handouts from the World Food Programme. Elderly grandmothers swung pickaxes in an effort to feed their orphaned grandchildren for whom they had responsibility. Women constantly performed work regarded as too heavy for men.

The conference delegates would have seen some houses bereft of furniture with as many as six people sharing a single grass sleeping mat and a sheet. The family had sold everything they possessed in order to continue caring for their AIDS patient and orphans.

For many other families, a curtain of sheets surrounded their homes, which were often a single room. Newly-washed (by hand) and drying in the hot sun, the sheets declared that the patient indoors was too weak to make it to the communal outdoor toilet.

Then there were the homes where there was, literally, not a scrap of food left, no money and no employment. Only the local parish and its parishioners kept the family alive. They voluntarily visited the sick, supplied medicines, helped with the nursing and the housework, clothed and educated the orphans and acted as a distribution centre for the free food delivered by the World Food Programme for the families of those with AIDS. It was the parish which cooked and fed orphans with one daily meal so that they would not starve or end up as Street Kids, begging and stealing in order to survive.

One day, my helper, Sara, and I stopped as a sick man called out to us. Lying on a mat outside his house, he had seen a tiny bag of dried fish in Sara’s hand. “Please let me have that fish”, he begged. “I have no appetite, but I could eat some fish”. She gave him without a second thought although her own family of four children would go hungry that day. Sara did not know that I would refund her for the food that she could not spare. In her generosity, she gave the man his last meal: he died that afternoon…

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