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Heroes Versus HIV/AIDS

Lester and Yvonne have the deep, rich, well-modulated accents of French-speaking Africans. They work together in one of the largest agencies engaged in fighting the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. Between them, they have devoted more than thirty years to fighting the pandemic that has gone beyond crisis proportions.

As I helped them with their reports, I learned more about the situation in Africa. It is tragic beyond tragic, almost beyond description. There are millions of children orphaned by AIDS. Mere children become the heads of households, suffering not only the illnesses and deaths of their parents, but having to assume adult responsibilities to hoe and plant, to harvest and prepare, to seek potable water. The children are vulnerable—more than vulnerable—to the disease themselves. If they have not inherited it from birth, they are prey for adults who seek the innocent and untouched as sexual partners so that they themselves are in no danger of contracting “Slim”—the disease that stalks the land, laying flesh to waste. Poverty-stricken families become even poorer as the adults sicken and are no longer able to work. Nutrition and medicine have always been scarce; they are scarcer now. The families are decimated when the parents die.

Yet Lester and Yvonne fight on in the midst of all this despair. Their job is to research and inform. They know very well that some of their research will not be allowed to see the light of day because it is too controversial. They labor on, hoping that someday the messages may get through. They labor loyally on, trying with all their might to make a difference in spite of insuperable odds.

Yvonne only has time to see her family on weekends. She sleeps near the office during the week. Lester has been ordered by his doctor to go on a vacation—he wouldn’t take one otherwise. He confides that he must begin spending more time at home. The demands of his schedule are taking a toll on his family life.

I wonder how they keep going, sacrificing their families, knowing that some parts of the truths they uncover will be suppressed, knowing that they are raising a sword against a dragon of monstrous proportions, a dragon who has been winning and winning and winning for decades now, laying a continent waste. How have they the strength to smile, to write even one more report?

We stop for a lunch break. They do not want to eat outside of the office. We get our food and bring it back. The instant we have swallowed our last mouthfuls, their fingers are back on their laptops, working, working, working against time, working against the disease, working against death.

I can detect no bitterness, no weariness in either Lester or Yvonne. In fact, they seem to be made more determined by the adverse circumstances under which they labor. I am at a loss to explain their devotion. They do not seem to be motivated by the usual things people are. It is not money. They are not discernibly religious. I am not sure it is patriotism. Where do they get the hope to keep producing their work, against all odds?

I don’t know. I worked with them for several months, and I learned very little about what gave them the steely determination to keep going. I only know that they had it, and I still see them as people who dared to lift a sword against a dragon few had been able to slow down, let alone stop, at considerable personal sacrifice. I feel that, as long as they do that, the specter of HIV/AIDS, hovering so mercilessly over Africa, has not won. Such people are the fingers in the dike of disaster that is AIDS, and they should be recognized as the heroes they are.

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