I Die, But The Memory Lives On
A sombre look at the AIDS epidemic smoldering in Africa, and its effect on the children left behind.
“During the long and difficult civil war that ravaged Mozambique â€“ from the early 1980s until 1992 â€“ I made a journey to the Cabo Delgado province in the north. One day in November 1990, I was in a place just south of the border with Tanzania. The area had been badly affected by the war. Many people had been killed or crippled, and starvation was widespread since most of the crops had been burnt. It was like entering an Inferno where misery rose like smoke all along the dusty roads.
One day I took a path that led to a tiny village. A young man came walking towards me. It seemed as if he was walking out of the sun. His clothes were in tatters. He could have been nineteen, maybe twenty. When he came closer, I noticed his feet. I saw something I shall never forget as long as I live. I can see it before my very eyes as I am telling this tale now. Rarely does a day pass when I don’t think about this boy who was coming towards me as if from out of the sun. What did I see? His feet. He had painted shoes on to his feet. He had mixed paint from the soil and preserved his dignity for as long as possible. He had no boots, no shoes, nothing, not even a pair of sandals made from the remains of a car tyre. As he had no shoes, he had to make some himself, so he painted a pair of shoes on to his feet, and in doing so he boosted his awareness that, despite all his misery and destitution, he was a human being with dignity.
I thought at the time and I still think now that of all the strangers I have met in my life, this meeting may have been the most important of all. For what he told me with his feet was that human dignity can be preserved and maintained when all else seems lost. I learned that we should all be aware that there could come a day when we too will have to paint shoes on to our feet. And when that day comes, it is important that we know that we possess that ability. I don’t know what his name was. He couldn’t speak Portuguese and I didn’t understand his language. I have often wondered what became of him. He is most probably dead, though I have no way of knowing for sure. But the image of his feet will always be with me.”
“I must be honest. It was a relief to get away. So much death and suffering in a few intensive weeks is more than enough. I shall never forget the people I met. Nor shall I ever cease to be angry over the fact that so much of this suffering is unnecessary.
Christine again: the medication she needed cost twice her monthly wage as a teacher. She earned the equivalent of US$55 a month (Â£30). The drugs, in their simplest form, cost US$110. Approximately US$1300 (Â£720) per year. That’s US$1300 for Christine, US$1300 for Moses, and another US$1300 for Gladys. But they shouldn’t really need to pay anything at all. When the history of this epidemic is eventually written, a chapter will be devoted to the gigantic pharmaceutical monopolies and the actions of their shareholders and executive boards during the years when Aids ravaged the world. No courts will be able to bring the owners of those companies to justice.
But the greed and inhumanity tells the story of our age. What we allowed to happen. We will never know how many people died before the drugs companies permitted or were forced to permit medicines to be manufactured in places and at prices that made the drugs accessible to the poorest people of the world. The scale of this crisis is unique. The greed today concerning drug licensing, the ruthless exploitation of the weak economies, the increasing but nevertheless inadequate resources made available to combat Aids are another scandal. No wonder many Africans believe that the West has no objection to large numbers of poverty-stricken Africans being killed off so as to “ease the burden”.
I think about this as I fly to London. It strikes me that these giant aircraft travelling through the night skies are the modern equivalent of sailing ships. In olden days they would ply the seas to Africa at a stately pace. Nowadays, everything goes much faster. But the distances are no shorter. They are still vast. They are kept vast. They are not distances to be bridged. They are chasms to be left in place. Or patrolled.
The truth about Aids is of course a general truth about what the world is like today. In other words: what we allow the world to look like.”