Politics

Child survivors of the AIDS crisis in Africa

Updated:

NEW YORK — Demaris Muthoni weighed the same at 4 years old as when she was born.

When Jane Kinuthia found her, huddled beside a shack in the red light district of Gilgil, Kenya, Muthoni weighed 10 pounds.

“In all my years in Gilgil, I had never seen anything like this,” said Jane Kinuthia, who owned a cafe in the area of the Rift Valley, northwest of Nairobi, before she became a child's rights activist.

Muthoni's parents died of AIDS, leaving her to pass the time along the dingy streets of her neighborhood while her 17-year-old aunt and caregiver worked as a prostitute, to bring in about a dollar a client.

That was three years ago. Today, Muthoni is a robust schoolgirl who lives in an orphanage on the other side of town. She has thrived, thanks to a nutrition and education program founded by Kinuthia along with two other women, one a nurse and the other a social worker.

Kinuthia changed her cafe into a children’s shelter and bought the property next door in order to expand her services. Jill Simpson, a retired nurse, solicited funds and helped organize the project. Teresa Wahito, a social worker, provided the day-to-day care. (Eighty-year-old Simpson died this year from heart disease but the Saudia Children’s Home that she helped to found continues to thrive.)

The story of these three women, how they found each other and worked together to help the children of Gilgil, is one of several stories with a happy ending featured in "Face to Face: Children of the AIDS Crisis in Africa."

The book stands out among African medical tales because of the stunning photos of resilient children and their grandmothers, who in many cases are left to care for the youngsters when parents are too sick or have died.

Some 20 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have lost both parents to AIDS, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS.

As Richter points out, that’s roughly the population of Australia.

"Face to Face," written by Ruthann Richter and photographed by Karen Ande, comes at a time when policymakers are revamping their approach to children’s aid. Young survivors are not just viewed as cases to be fed and clothed and given medicine, but they are treated now as children who need a loving family and psychosocial support as well.

The new strategy mimics the way treatment modalities mature. First comes detection, then devising an efficient treatment strategy. And only then does treatment move beyond survival to focus on quality of life.

In the June issue of The Journal of the International AIDS Society, Linda Richter (no relation to Ruthann), an investigator with the Human Sciences Research Council in Durban, South Africa, wrote that “mere provision of antiretrovirals will not be sufficient, it is of pivotal importance that treatment and care for children are integrated into the broader context of family-support services.” 

The point of "Face to Face" is to use words and pictures to tell small success stories, or as Richter calls them, the “unheralded champions.” Each chapter describes villagers who have made strides to help the lives of local children — whether it's establishing a health clinic, providing the means for families to earn money or creating schools.

John Adoli, a former soccer player, for instance, founded Girl Power in Kibera that provides young women with HIV-counseling and jobs to keep them away from prostitution.

“We were able to follow some of these kids over the course of four years," said Richter. "One girl was 13 and her mother was literally on her deathbed. She was holding the family together, caring for three younger brothers — all of whom showed signs of malnutrition. She was rescued by a woman who started a public school and for the first time she and her brothers attended school, were fed and are all doing very well."

"Even with small resources people can really make a difference in a child’s life,” Richter said.