Out of Africa
On October 7th, 2009 The Bray People covered Lynda Piper-Roche's story in the article Out of Africa. Lynda is one of the winners of EIL Travel Awards 2009 and travelled to South Africa as part of EIL’s Global Awareness Programme.
Lynda Piper-Roche was heartbroken recently when she had to say her last goodbyes to an 11year-old boy who died of AIDS.
Lynda spent nine weeks this summer in South Africa doing voluntary work with children living with HIV and AIDS. She grew very close to some of her young charges and wrote a moving blog of an experience she described as 'exhausting, challenging, heartbreaking and incredibly difficult.'
It was also, however, 'enlightening, mind opening and enriching.'
She explained that she had become attached to the deceased boy, known only as 'K'. 'His massive brown eyes, his skinny, emaciated frame, the desire he had to be well and play and go to school like a healthy child.'
Both of the youngster's parents had died from AIDS. 'Who knows how he contracted it,' said Lynda. 'He was too old to have been born with it. It breaks my heart to know what he had seen in his short life.'
He was the only child she encountered during her eight-week internship, she said, who actually 'looked' sick.
She travelled to South Africa with EIL, an Irish non-profit organisation with a global awareness programme that seeks to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in Africa here in Ireland.
Lynda was based in ThembaCare, Cape Town – a care centre for babies and children with HIV and AIDS. There, she learned of the tragic histories of the babies being cared for in the project. 'So many of them were abandoned by their parents, or their parents were simply too sick to take care of them. So many beautiful babies live there, with not one person to love them.'
The children there range in age from newborns to toddlers, as well as 11-year-old 'K' and other kids of 5 and 6.
She explained that the anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) the children must take come with debilitating side effects, several of them in and out of hospital frequently. 'They cope so well with what his happening to them,' she said, however Lynda worries about what will become of them.
'Where will they end up?' she wondered. 'How long will they live? Who will take care of them when ThembaCare has nursed them back to optimal health?' K's mother moved back to her own mother's house when she got very ill. She was afraid to tell her mother she
had HIV for fear of being cast out, which is common practice in South Africa.
It wasn't until her death that K's grandmother realised what was wrong and sought help. Sadly it was too late for him by then and he was just weeks away from death.
As well as mothers turning against their daughters for disclosing HIV status, men who have infected a young woman have been known to beat them and accuse them of being unfaithful.
As a result, young pregnant girls are too scared to tell the people they love the most that they are sick, therefore putting off treatment until they are beyond help. 'The stigma stops people from finding out their status, accessing help and telling the people they need to tell.'
L's HIV+ mother abandoned him. His father is an alcoholic who left him home alone so was deemed an unfit guardian. The 2.5 year old was well enough to go to an aunt until he caught TB from another child in the centre.
'If you thought Irish hospitals were dirty – think again,' said Lynda. L was in a public hospital just outside Cape Town for weeks. Lynda and her colleague Ciara were his only visitors. TB is the leading cause of death in HIV and AIDS sufferers.
The 29-year-old was shocked to see the thick medical files some of the children had. 'Mine is still just a single page,' she reflected.
B is a twin, aged 2 years and 4 months. His healthy brother is living at home in a shack in one of South Africa's townships, with his mother and grandfather. B is living at ThembaCare.
Abandoned by his mum, B looks about 1 year old, much smaller than his twin and with very little hair. A twin herself, this struck a chord with Lynda. 'I would never have been able to forgive my mother if she had done that to my twin,' she said.
Hopefully B will be able to go home soon. His mother and brother will come to live with him for a while at ThembaCare, where she will learn to look after him properly.
Reluctant to use the phrase 'making a difference,' Linda rather remembers her task as working 'with' people on the ground, 'seeing the changes that we can make for the better every single day.'
Now back home in Ireland, Lynda has returned to her work as Development Officer for Homelink Bray, a free telephone service for people living alone, including a daily call to the home of a member to check if they are ok. For more information on that service, call (01) 2014473.