The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that more than 11 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have been orphaned by AIDS. The FAO also predicts that up to 20 million African children could lose one or both parents to the disease by 2010. Deborah Ellis is a Canadian children's writer, peace activist and humanitarian field worker who traveled to Africa to learn more about what life is like for these AIDS orphans. Now she's written a book about her experience called Our Stories, Our Songs: African Children Talk About AIDS (Fitzhenry and Whiteside Limited).
Deborah Ellis says she went to Africa to put human faces on children known to many people in the West only as statistics. "I went over there to try to meet with these kids, to learn their names, their faces, their personalities, their hopes and fears. And I wanted to bring that back so that young people in this part of the world could get a sense of who they are."
The author visited the African nations of Malawi and Zambia, where she met with children in a wide range of circumstances, all of whom had been affected by AIDS. "Some of them were fairly well off and had their parents still alive, and they were part of anti-AIDS clubs in schools and they were becoming activists and teachers themselves. Some kids were living on the street. Others were taking care of their younger brothers and sisters because their parents had died. Some of them get bounced from relative to relative, and when resources run out someone else will take them in. I met with children in prison who were there because of AIDS related crimes. Everybody you meet in that part of the world has lost somebody to AIDS, so everybody has got a story."
And while she gathered a wide range of stories, Deborah Ellis says they included common themes. "When you lose your parents there's nobody who really will take that place, so loneliness is a common theme. (They were) very hopeful, in spite of everything, but very worried as well about who will teach them to be a good human being. How will they make it to the next stage? Will they live long enough to make their mark on the world?"
For the children nursing parents who were dying of AIDS, there were special challenges, says Deborah Ellis. "AIDS is not a quiet death. It's a very difficult death, with lots of pain involved and lots of physical difficulties. And these children will be looking after their parents with almost no medication, often no clean water, not enough food and often being pretty much on their own."
Of the many stories she heard in Africa, Deborah Ellis was especially haunted by the story of a boy who was in prison for killing a classmate. "His classmate was crazy with grief. He'd lost his parents to AIDS and it turned into anger, and he attacked this boy with a bicycle chain. This kid fought back and accidentally killed the classmate. He'd been in jail for over a year by the time I met him, had never seen a lawyer, had never appeared before a judge. Because all the lawyers are dying, there aren't enough people to protect human rights. Judges are dying, so people aren't getting due process, and this kid is just kind of stuck there--he's just kind of lost there.
Ms. Ellis says there are some official programs in place to help the children. "And there are a lot of great non-governmental organizations in North America and around the world, and in that part of the world as well, who are doing the very best they can to support as many of these kids as possible, to keep them in school, keep them fed, give them a sense of future. But more of course needs to be done."
And while the stories she gathered are about devastating loss and hardship, Deborah Ellis believes they are also stories of survival and dreams for the future. "We do the best we can whoever we are, whatever circumstances we're living in just to get by every day, and these children are no different. They're still alive so they're still hoping things are going to get better and maybe there's something they can do to make their lives better. Some of them want to be nurses, doctors, journalists. Some of them want to travel all over the place. A lot of them want to be singers and performers because some of them are performing plays in different villages to educate people about AIDS. They have the same hopes and visions that children everywhere have to have a good life and to be able to earn a living and see the world and have their lives matter.
The author says she hopes readers of her book will come to see the African AIDS orphans as being just like the children in their own neighborhoods or families, deserving of exactly the same love and dignity and joy. "I also hope they'll see that they can play a role in making that happen, that AIDS is a huge, massive problem, but it's made up of a lot of tiny little problems that can be solved, and we can do better."
Deborah Ellis is contributing proceeds from Our Stories, Our Songs to UNICEF, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. She has also written a recent novel for young people called The Heaven Shop, that deals with the AIDS epidemic in Africa.