This was published in the Capital Journal.
Mary led me by the hand and we followed narrow trails through barbed-wire fence and past grazing animals to her house. Inside, she introduced me to her mother and then showed me two large pill bottles.
Her antivirals, the medication used to treat HIV/AIDs.
It was only my first week in Lesotho when Mary, not her real name, a young girl in my training village, told me that she was HIV positive. As I understand it, through a broken combination of English and Sesotho, she was badly burned in a fire, which claimed part of her hand, and the doctors gave her “dirty blood” during treatment. She is just 11.
Mary is one of the first people I’ve met with HIV or AIDs. Sadly, in her country, she is amongst thousands. Lesotho has the third highest HIV/AIDs prevalence rate, at 23.2 percent, and the highest number of annual new cases in the world. Roughly one in four people are infected with this disease.
The most common types of transmission in Lesotho are heterosexual intercourse and mother to child with the wide spread often attributed to multiple concurrent partners. There is limited access to medication, especially in the rural areas, but the greatest tool in controlling HIV/AIDs in this country is education.
Before coming to Lesotho, my exposure to HIV/AIDs was very limited. Now, it’s a part of my everyday life. In Lesotho HIV/AIDs affects 100 percent of the population. Although there is a dark and bulky stigma around the disease, maybe even more so than in the United States, its devastation is felt in many corners.
Saturdays are funeral day in the village and I know not to schedule any meetings or activities that day. Not all deaths are HIV/AIDs related, but it can be assumed that if the person was sick and relatively young it probably was, even though it’s never publicly admitted.
As part of my teacher preparation, I received life skills training so I can help my students better understand this disease, how to avoid it and how to navigate its destruction. Many of my students are orphans, with either one or both parents deceased. They eat one meal a day, at school, and must rely on extended family for support. One of my students, a double orphan, couldn’t even afford to buy the school uniform.
December 1 is World AIDS Day, a time for all of us to remember the devastation this disease continues to cause – in Africa, the U.S., all over the world – and what we can do about it. Even in South Dakota, we can be a part of the fight to stop the spread of HIV. There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer or donate to organizations at home and abroad. But the most important thing we can do is educate ourselves and become more aware of this global tragedy.
Although my time in Lesotho is nearly expired, my commitment to the fight against HIV will not and I will find ways to get involved back in the U.S. I will carry on for those still living and those who have lost loved ones. I will carry on for my orphaned students. I will carry on for Mary.