Commentary: Thandi's Story Shows Toll of AIDS

December 01, 2009

A UMNS Commentary
By Nancy Neelley*

Thandiwe is a quiet girl who has experienced the kind of loss that no 12-year-old child should have to bear.

I met her recently while on a mission trip to Zimbabwe for Project Tariro, a ministry that addresses the needs of Zimbabweans living with HIV/AIDS. "Tariro" means hope in Shona, and meeting Thandi gave me a new understanding of the need for hope.
In Zimbabwe, an estimated one in four adults is living with HIV/AIDS. Thandi's mother, Nora, was one of them.
When she was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, Nora was rejected by her family, and sought refuge in Project Tariro's "positive-living" community. There, Thandi and her mom discovered a new family, meeting people who were receiving treatment and becoming well enough to work and even help others living with the disease.
But last March, something went terribly wrong. Nora had been doing well on the antiretroviral drugs, which are free at the United Methodist clinic at Old Mutare Mission, but she developed an infection and needed another prescription filled. The hospital dispensary didn't have the drugs, and Nora didn't have the transportation nor the money to purchase them elsewhere. Her health worsened.
One morning, Nora was found lying outside the clinic on the pavement with Thandi at her side. Her support group and the clinic staff pooled their money to purchase the medication and find transportation.
They were too late. When they returned with the medicine, they found that Nora had died.
A tender embrace
Thandi's life was at a standstill. No family members were there to help her mourn the loss, feed and clothe her or take her to school. Nora's family abandoned her, and Nora's body was left in the morgue for four weeks before her friends could raise enough money for a burial.
During my visit in October, the clinic staff - Joyce Makoni and Evelyn Mashonganyika (right) - told me what had happened. I asked to meet Thandi, so she walked the dirt road from her home to talk with me. When she arrived, I was touched by her beauty, her quiet nature, and how the depth of her grief was so acutely visible.
I began by telling her that I heard how wonderful her mom was and asked if she could tell me more about her. Big teardrops almost immediately began to fall off her cheeks. She said her mom always took care of her, giving her food and clothes and teaching her to cook and do crafts.
Thandi said that her mom read to her and that they often laughed together. She spoke about her mom teaching her to love God.
I was deeply moved. Not knowing what else to do, I asked her if I could hold her.
As we embraced, I thought about Nora, and I could only imagine how desperate she must have felt for her child in those last hours of life.
With Nora's death, Thandi has now become the one - the one in four children under the age of 15 who is orphaned by AIDS in Zimbabwe. Can you imagine if this situation were all around us in the United States, and we had to live with this as a common occurrence?
Thandi's wish
Project Tariro's goal is to lessen the occurrence of AIDS orphans by providing treatment to those living with HIV/AIDS and prevention education to surrounding communities. Its ministries include treatment, support groups, income-generating projects and a nutritional garden. The ministry draws support from the Faculty of Health Sciences at United Methodist-related Africa University, the Zimbabwe United Methodist Church and U.S.-based Friends of Project Tariro.
Funding is desperately needed for Project Tariro to continue beyond October 2010. Funds may be designated for "AIDS Project Tariro, c/o AU" and mailed to the Africa University Development Office, P.O. Box 34000, Nashville, TN 37203.The program is also an Advance Special of the church, so checks can be designated for "Project Tariro, Advance #982345" and placed in offering plates.
Thandi is now living with a local pastor and six other orphans who love and support her. Her life is going on, although her mom's death is something that will affect her entire life.
I can't take her pain away. I can't make everything all right for her. But what I can do is remember what she said to me before I left her.
I asked Thandi if there was anything that she wanted me to tell others. She looked out the window, then quietly said that she hopes "all people who are living positively can get treatment, so they won't die like my mother did."
Thandi's story inspires me to work for Project Tariro - to raise money and awareness - so that one day, by God's grace, her wish will come true.

*Neelley is a program manager with United Methodist Communications and a deacon with Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. UMNS is a unit of United Methodist Communications.