Real Life

Our Stories, Our Songs: Young People Touched By AIDS

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Life in Chowomba
Lusaka is the capital city of Zambia. One million of Zambia’s 10 million people live here. Chowomba is a congested, low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Lusaka. Small mud-brick and tin-roof houses crowd together off narrow dirt roads and pathways. On the sidewalk outside the post office, I meet Agnes. She asks me to buy one of her red ribbons, with the money going to support AIDS orphans. She invites me to her home to meet some of the children she takes care of. I meet Collins and his friends in the small, dark shed where he lives with his mother Agnes and many other children.

I’m very brave. I feel bravest when I’m with my friends. My mother gets scared, though.

I don’t remember very much about when my father died. I was quite small, and you don’t always remember what happens to you when you’re small. I think he suffered from bad headaches, and also he ran out of blood. When he was well, he was very kind to me and would let me ride on his shoulders, or just let me sit beside him while he talked to other men. He was a soldier. He was very strong, when he wasn’t sick. I’d like to be a soldier, too. My mother says the older I get, the more I look like him. My mother says he died of AIDS, so she tries to stop other people getting AIDS.

The house we live in now is smaller than where we used to live. Our old house had running water and electricity, but this house doesn’t have anything. After my father died, his family came and took everything we had — our house, our furniture, and our money. My mother is trying to get everything back for us,
but she says she needs money to go to court, and we don’t have money.

I’m in grade two. My teacher is Mr. Mumba. He’s a good teacher. He doesn’t yell at us, and says he is proud when we do a good job but he doesn’t like people to be late. My worst subject is arithmetic. I like learning to read and learning about other places in the world.

Of course, what I like to do even better than go to school is play. My friends and I could play with each other all day long and never get tired of it.

Nothing scares me. I’m very brave. I feel bravest when I’m with my friends.

My mother gets scared, though — mostly about money. She sells ribbons on the street in Lusaka. The red ribbons are to remind people about AIDS. The blue ribbons are to remind people not to hit their children. She stops people on the street and asks them to buy a ribbon. Some days she sells a lot of ribbons and brings food home.

There are a lot of children living in this house. They are children whose parents have died, and they have no place to go. I don’t know where my mother finds them all, but she does, and she brings them here. She says every child should be taken care of. They are my new brothers and sisters.

New Desks
Lukata, a village an hour outside of Lusaka in Zambia, is not even on a map. It’s way off the highway, through scrub brush and grassy fields, down sandy roads that aren’t really roads. I am traveling today with some people from an organization called Children In Crisis (CIC). On the way to the village, we see two small boys clearing the land with machetes, getting it ready for planting. A CIC worker talks to the adult in charge of them and gets permission for the boys to come with us to the school. The school is in a clearing. There is great excitement today. The desks have arrived.

I’m so happy to have a desk! All my life I have sat on the
floor of the schoolroom, or on a rock in the schoolyard.

I live with my grandmother and with my mother. My father died last spring. I don’t know why he died, except that he was sick. I am the second child in my family. I have two brothers and sisters.

Science and math are my best subjects. I’d like to be a teacher when I grow up.

I’m so happy to have a desk! All my life I have sat on the floor of the schoolroom, or on a rock in the schoolyard. It is uncomfortable, and it is hard to write that way, although my mind is smart and I still learn. I know I will be a better student now. Having a desk makes me feel important. Having a desk makes me feel that someone else thinks I’m important.

We hear about AIDS, and there are a lot of children in this village who live with their grandmother or their aunt, but no one says why. People die. We hear about that all the time — that there is a funeral for this person or that person.

I don’t have a boyfriend. I don’t want one. I want to play net ball with my friends, and sing, and study at my new desk. If there is a boy who will make me happy and still let me do all the things I want to do, then maybe I’ll have a boyfriend.

Being Sick
The public hospitals in Malawi and Zambia are overcrowded. There are not enough beds, so many patients have to sleep on mats on the floor between the beds. Sometimes patients have to share a single bed with a complete stranger. There aren’t enough nurses, because AIDS affects health care workers, too. Family members of the sick person usually stay at the hospital with them, often sleeping under their bed.

I have heard about AIDS. I learned about it in school, and I read about it on billboards.

Zinenani is sitting in the sun on the grass outside of the hospital. Her mother is beside her. She has a blanket around her shoulders, even though the day is warm. She is listless. Her mother peels a banana for her, but Zinenani holds it without interest.

I have gone as far as grade nine in secondary school. Physical
science is my best subject.

My mother has been bringing me to the hospital every now and then for months. I am taking antibiotics. Maybe they will help. Maybe they won’t.

I have been sick for a long time. I cough a lot and throw up. I have no interest in food. There are sores on my skin, and my body hurts all over. I have lost a lot of weight, and I don’t feel like doing anything. Everything takes a lot of effort, so I don’t feel like doing anything. My mother brings me outside to sit in the sun when it is a sunny day. I like being where it’s warm. My body doesn’t ache so badly then.

I have heard about AIDS. I learned about it in school, and I read about it on billboards. I know that it weakens your body, so that you get sick from other things, like Tuberculosis. I don’t know if I have AIDS. They haven’t tested me — or if they have, they haven’t told me. There are no drugs here for AIDS, so what
does it matter if I have it?

Before I got sick, I liked to play with small children. I wanted to become a teacher for small children. Will that happen? Depends on whether I get better. My father was sick in l995 the same way I am now. He died, right here in this same hospital. Maybe I will die, too.

“Stop talking like that,” her mother scolds. “I’ve told you before not to think like that. You will get better.”

Photos: Cover image, Zinenani, and Mary’s photo: courtesy of Friends of Mulanje Orphans. All other images by Deborah Ellis.

To learn more or to get involved, check out:

Unicef Canada has tons of information if you want to get involved through school, with the aid of your parents and teachers.
Stephen Lewis is the U.N. Secretary General’s Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa but his love and concern for Africa started way back in the 1960s when he was a teacher. He was also the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s. Now he travels extensively across Africa to bring attention to women and children ravaged by the pandemic of HIV/AIDS.
The Joint United Nations Programme for HIV/AIDS brings attention to HIV/AIDS causes worldwide.

About the author: Deborah Ellis is the internationally acclaimed author of a number of award-winning titles for children, including the Breadwinner trilogy, A Company of Fools, and The Heaven Shop. A peace activist and humanitarian field worker, Deborah has traveled the world to meet with and hear the stories of children marginalized by poverty, war, and illness. She is the recipient of the Governor General’s Award, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Vicky Metcalf Award for a body of work, and the Children’s Africana Book Award Honor Book for Older Readers. Deborah now lives in Simcoe, Ontario. To read more stories, check out Deborah Ellis’ OUR STORIES, OUR SONGS: AFRICAN CHILDREN TALK ABOUT AIDS (Fitzhenry & Whiteside). Royalties from the sale of this book will be donated to UNICEF (

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).


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