Before I travel to a new place, I make it a habit to read a couple of books on the country I’m visiting in order to get an overview of a country’s history, culture, politics and other pertinent issues. When I was selected to go to Ethiopia as a fellow with the International Reporting Project where I’d be learning about newborn, child and maternal health I found several fabulous books highlighting these issues.
Greene’s moving book chronicles the life of one woman’s fight to save Ethiopia’s AIDS orphans during the height of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Before reading the book, I honestly had no idea that Ethiopia was the second most impacted country in Africa by HIV/AIDS. Greene herself was unaware of the severity of the AIDS epidemic until she came across a New York Times Article in the summer of 2000.
On page 20 in her book, Greene writes:
Per the United Nations, in 2000 Africa was “a continent of orphans.” HIV and acquired AIDS had killed more than 21 million people, including 4 million children. More than 13 million children had been orphaned, 12 million of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. 25% of those lived in 2 countries: Nigeria and Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, 11% of the children were orphans.
Greene realized she could not turn a blind eye to this horrible tragedy and spent the next several years researching the origin and history of the HIV/AIDS, the development of antiretrovirals, the impact of AIDS in Africa and the plight of an entire generation of AIDS orphans. Her research resulted in her powerful book “There is No Me Without You” which is all shown through the eyes of one woman, Haregewoin Teferra, who dared to rescue these children, deemed untouchable and tragically left behind in the aftermath.
It was within this mesmerizing, heart-breaking true story that I learned about Amelezewd and AHOPE for Children. Amelezewd Girma and her two younger brothers were AIDS orphans living with Haregewoin when it was discovered Amelezewd and one of her brothers were HIV positive and too sick for her to care for.
At the time, Ethiopia was overwhelmed with HIV/AIDS orphans (there were over 1.5 million in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2005) and Haregewoin searched desperately for a place that she could send Amelezewd and her brother to be properly cared for. Through Haregewoin’s search, she found Enat House for HIV-positive children which later was renamed AHOPE for Children, and Amelezewd and her brother Michael were placed there.
Sadly, it was too late for young Amelezewd who as a young teenager dreamed of getting an education and becoming a professor someday. Life-saving anti-retrovirals (ARV) that were widely available in the western world were still unaccessible in Sub-Saharan Africa where they needed them most. ARVs were not available in Ethiopia until 2005. Amelezewd passed away leaving behind a legacy of heartbreak and hope while her younger brother Michael survived thanks to the availability of ARV treatment. AHOPE meant that there was finally a hope for HIV positive children and they were no longer being sent to a place to be cared for before they died.
It was against this backdrop that I contacted AHOPE for Children and scheduled a site visit to meet with the director Mengesha Shibru during my reporting fellowship in Ethiopia this past June.
AHOPE for Children was founded over ten years ago by American Kathy Olsen as an American non-profit charity to assist in the funding of a home for HIV positive children in Ethiopia. AHOPE stands for “African HIV Orphans: Project Embrace” and is the only orphanage in Ethiopia that solely cares for HIV positive children. AHOPE for Children and AHOPE Ethiopia are two separate organizations (AHOPE is based in the US and AHOPE Ethiopia is an Ethiopian non-profit organization) working together to help children with HIV/AIDS. The role of AHOPE for Children is to raise money to support AHOPE Ethiopia; AHOPE Ethiopia is the day to day caring and programs for all of the kids.
AHOPE Ethiopia runs children’s homes, Little AHOPE for younger children, Family Group Homes for older kids, Youth Transition Homes for young adults, and community outreach programs for children impacted by HIV/AIDS. The sole mission of AHOPE is to provide these children with a loving, supportive “family” and prepare them for an independent future while also providing care for HIV.
I met with Mengesha, the Director of AHOPE Ethiopia, at the Little AHOPE compound which is home to 27 children. Currently there are 95 children in AHOPE Ethiopia homes and over 100 children receiving support through AHOPE’s community outreach program.
We entered Little AHOPE to the sounds of children playing outside and were met by several smiles and giggles. At first glance, these children didn’t seem any different than my own. They were playing, singing, jumping and vying for our attention. Yet each one of these children were different as they are all HIV positive, fighting other related illnesses and orphaned.
The first hour was spent speaking with Mengesha, who has worked at AHOPE for several years and has recently become AHOPE Ethiopia’s Director. Mengesha is a warm, loving man who is passionate about AHOPE and the children. Most of the children at AHOPE are either single or double orphans who have tragically watched one or more parent die from AIDS and has been abandoned with no family member willing or able to care for them. These children have the extra burden of being HIV positive meaning they have many special needs.
The children were all very curious about their different looking foreign friends. Me and my colleagues spent some time talking with them and I was touched to see that each child had their own dreams about the future. One fourteen year old girl told us proudly that she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Thankfully, with AHOPE these children all have a hope for the future and an opportunity to be who they want to be.
Some facts on HIV/AIDS and Ethiopia:
- An estimated 33.3 million people worldwide are infected with HIV/AIDS.
- In 2009, 1.8 million people died due to HIV/AIDS, and another 2.6 mil-lion were newly infected.
- More than 68 percent (approximately 22.5 million people) of those infected are in sub-Saharan Africa.
- Worldwide, 2.5 million children under 15 are living with HIV/AIDS, and 370,000 were newly infected in 2009.
Those are just some of the staggering statistics on the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Ethiopia is a nation that has been severely afflicted by the AIDS pandemic. The first case of HIV in Ethiopia was reported in 1984. Since then, an entire generation of child-bearing age and child-raising age adults has been decimated. HIV/AIDS has become a major public health concern in the country, leading the Government of Ethiopia to declare a public health emergency in 2002. In 2007, the estimated adult HIV/AIDS prevalence in Ethiopia was 2.1 percent and today it remains a major development challenge for Ethiopia. Poverty, food shortages, and other socio-economic factors amplify the impact of the epidemic. Estimates indicate that in 2009 in Ethiopia approximately 1.1 million people were living with HIV, with a prevalence rate of about 2.3 percent.
Children in Ethiopia are also profoundly affected by HIV/AIDS. In 2009, nearly 73,000 children under age 15 were living with HIV.
Interested in learning more? Here are some excellent resources:
- AHOPE for Children’s website
- “There is No Me Without You: One Woman’s Odyssey to Rescue her Country’s Children” by Melissa Fay Greene (This book not only tells the true story of Haregewoin Teferra, it also documents some of the believed scientific origins of AIDS, the development and distribution of ARVs, and the plight of AIDS orphans in Ethiopia. It is an excellent book).
- A fascinating documentary that can be watched for free over the internet: “And the Band Played On” again documents the discovery of AIDS, the appallingly delayed reaction to do anything, the development of ARVs and the spread of AIDS throughout the world to become one of the worst epidemics Africa has ever seen.