Children Raising Children: Documenting Africa’s AIDS Crisis
“Any human being who could look at these photos and not be moved would have to be lacking a heart,” I said, clicking through pictures of AIDS-orphaned children in Sub-Saharan Africa. “They are so beautiful. ”
“Yes,” said Karen Ande, the photographer. “That got to me, too.” Karen was at her home in San Francisco, California, when I called her for this interview. “From the first moment I saw the kids, I was taken. The children are all beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.”
Ande is a documentarian of the struggles of AIDS orphans in Sub-Saharan Africa. She supports various grassroots organizations working there, raising funds partially through the sale of her photographs.
You may wonder why Blue Planet Green Living has chosen to profile Ande’s photographic work. You may also wonder what it has to do with green living. The answer, for Joe and me, is that sustaining the planet doesn’t just mean making a healthy world in which to live. It also means providing for the health and well-being of the organisms — plants, animals, and, especially, people — who inhabit it. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: How did you get started photographing orphans in Africa?
ANDE: At first, I was interested in photographing the animals. My husband I had traveled a couple of times to Africa. We volunteered for some Earthwatch projects in which we were field assistants to different scientists working in game parks. We went twice and tried to do it a third time, but the trip didn’t work out with Earthwatch. So we arranged our own trip.
At the time, I wasn’t aware of the impact of AIDS in Africa. I knew as much as anybody in the West in 2002 — which wasn’t much at all. Then, on one of the journeys we took during that trip, I met Jill Simpson, a Kenyan of British descent, who grew up there. Jill was a nurse who flew into the bush with doctors. She asked if I’d like to ride along to an orphanage. In the car with her, I said, “I’ll do some shots if you can use them for publicity.”
The orphanage got started after a social worker, a friend of Jill’s, found two boys wandering alone on the street. They were 8 and 10 years old, looking for their mom. The social worker took the boys home. Later, she found their mother in the morgue, about to be shoved into a common grave. The story about two abandoned children really bothered me and caught my attention. I got to meet those boys at the orphanage.
We visited the orphanage for an hour and a half, and I took shots of about 20 kids. I was so incredibly taken with the children. As we were leaving, someone said the orphanage had run out of rice. So I gave them money for rice and went back home, thinking that was the end of my involvement.
When I got home, I started printing pictures of the kids in the darkroom. Printing pictures is a magical thing. The pictures that emerged just completely grabbed me. I thought, I can do a couple of things. I can take the pictures I have and do nothing, or I can make a difference in the world. It was one of the points in life where I had to make a choice of which road I would take.
BPGL: What did you do next?
ANDE: Right after I came home, it was very clear to me that I wanted to go back. So I called the Firelight Foundation, in Santa Cruz. Their main interest is helping AIDS orphans in Sub-Saharan Africa; they are child-focused.
The AIDS issue has had a huge impact. I have heard there are from 15 to 18 million children living in appalling circumstances. In Africa, AIDS is in the heterosexual population and has affected a whole generation of parents. In the U.S., the emphasis is on treating adults and pregnant women. Very little work has been done with children. But Firelight has focused on children’s issues. I went back to Africa, and Firelight connected me with projects there.
BPGL: Tell about the projects you’re connected to in Africa.
ANDE: I work as a physical therapist in the States and fund my Africa work through that, but I often get help from agencies on the ground. Once Firelight funded me in Rwanda. And one agency has led to another. I’ve visited some very diverse kinds of communities and projects. With Firelight, I went to Kibera, the biggest slum in South Africa. They do volunteer testing for HIV, and they sponsor home health care workers there.
I had been in a photography class and met a teacher, who asked me to take pictures for her while I was in Kibera. I was absorbed and loved photographing the children. It was profoundly interesting, a visual feast. I felt more alive, more present, more that I had a sense that there was an impact to be made in a good way, that the pictures of these children could make a difference to their lives and the lives of kids in general over there.
I also went to the rural communities and focused on grassroots organizations in country. What that means, usually, is that someone in the community is impassioned on the issue and has an idea how to help. They know their communities, which are often very small. For example, one woman lived in a tiny town that had no pharmacy. So she decided to create one. With the profits, she intended to send orphans to school. There are no school fees, but you have to have uniforms. Poor children can’t afford $25 for clothes, and sometimes they have to pay tuition too.
The woman who started the pharmacy had an idea, but didn’t know what to do to implement it. She connected with another nonprofit that taught her how to get the idea funded. So far, she has sent about 18 or 20 children to school. Her idea worked because it involved people in a community who know what their community needs.
BPGL: I understand there’s a lot of corruption in some places, and that the aid we send from the US or elsewhere doesn’t always benefit those it’s intended to. Can you trust the community groups you work with?
ANDE: If I fall in love with a project started by a community organizer and come back home to fund-raise, I know what the project is doing. I also know that the person I’m working with knows it intimately and can direct money to the maximum benefit with very little waste. In some cases, people start projects on almost nothing.
With the community projects I’m connected to, there’s no waste, no government bureaucracy, no shady dealings. They provide a way for people [outside of Africa] to connect with people over there. You can give $25 to send kids to school and know it will actually happen.
We met one family, a 13 year-old girl named Esther, her dying mother, and three other children. Someone had given us a donation of $35, so we spent money on chickens for Esther to raise and sell. Several weeks later, the mother died. Nuns looked in and tried to figure out what to do with the children. All four were placed in Saidia (the word means “Help” in Swahili), a very small orphanage in Gilgil, Kenya, that holds about 35 children. That money bought protein when the mom died and helped keep the kids together as a family.
But I haven’t just gotten involved with orphanages. In Africa, people try to keep children in their own communities. They may live with an aunt or an uncle or grandparents. It’s a very tentative situation, as the relatives are often poor themselves. Some of the aid goes to help support the community so that children can stay with relatives.
BPGL: Do you work with nonprofit organizations besides Firelight?
ANDE: Yes, another I particularly like is GRACE, which stands for Grass Roots Alliance for Community Education. In one case, the director of the local GRACE group approached an elderly woman about taking in six kids. The woman was overwhelmed. “How about if I give you a cow?” he asked her. The granny said yes and took in all six children. Families are being made across genetic lines.
A whole generation of parents is dying, and there are so many children. Many people have at least one child they’ve taken in. Grandparents have special responsibilities. For example, Paulina had 12 children. All 12 died of AIDS, leaving her with 16 grandkids to raise alone, and she was 92.
BPGL: What is the future bringing to the next generation? Will they understand AIDS and protect themselves?
ANDE: It’s hard to say. It depends. You can educate people about the disease, but poverty is as much a problem as anything else. People here in the United States have free and private access to HIV testing. In rural Africa, they might walk miles to get a doctor. If you have HIV and no symptoms, you don’t know you’re sick, and you can be spreading it. Once you have symptoms, the likelihood of getting help has improved. Anti-retroviral drugs are more common than they used to be. But with poverty, people don’t always have choices.
For example, a woman I met worked in a dicey hotel in a small town; it was really bad there. She was employed by the owner, and she had to sleep at the hotel. In the middle of the night, a man came into her room. He was a village elder who was ill [with AIDS]. He said, “You will have sex with me. If not, I’ll tell your boss, and he’ll fire you.” She had the immediate and very real pressure of getting food for her children, so she felt she had no choice. It was a poverty decision.
I think that things will probably get better. I’m hoping there will be a medical solution to make it easier to deal with the disease or get treated. But there are still so many issues surrounding poverty. With even a small donation to a local organization, we can make a substantial difference in individual people’s lives. If enough of us care, we can make a huge difference in many lives.
BPGL: Is part of the answer adoption to families in other countries?
ANDE: There are not nearly as many adoptions as there are children who need homes. People in Sub-Saharan Africa have mixed feelings about adopting older kids out of their communities. Family structure is very important. They try to keep families together. One result is that there are many children taking care of children.
I saw huge numbers of child-headed families in Kibera. That is really difficult. It’s extremely hard for me to see this, and I’ve seen a lot at this point. Kids are very vulnerable. One girl, Yvonne, was orphaned at 12 and left with a six-month-old sister. They were living in a mud shack and had to pay rent. It was an impossible situation. We connected her with Kibera Hamlets, an organization that directly benefits child-headed families. There are a lot of groups working in the slum, and they have different approaches to the problems.
Another thing that kills people is stigma. Yvonne had had a two-parent family. Both had AIDS, but were reluctant to go to the clinic for testing. Your neighbors can see you walk in. If you walk out, they know you’re fine. If you stay there an hour to learn what you need to, you’re not. By the time they went to get tested and were put on anti-retroviral drugs, it was too late.
When I met Yvonne, she would attend school until it was time to collect the fees. Then she [and other kids who didn’t have the funds] would disappear for a while. When the pressure was off for collecting fees, they would come back.
BPGL: What about her little sister?
ANDE: She basically leaves her two-year-old sister, Tina, home alone. The little sister wanders from place to place looking for food. She is very shy and frightened. She has a haunted face. Yvonne is trying to go to school and sell sweets. She buys the sweets at low cost, then sells them on a blanket to passersby. She might make 100 shillings a week, which is about $1.50, to support both herself and Tina. Something about Yvonne touched me. I talked to church groups who agreed to send her tuition. She now is in high school. That costs $125 a year.
BPGL: How do you keep from bringing all of the children home?
ANDE: In a way, I do bring them all home. You have to figure out how to handle it. It’s like a half-full/half-empty glass. I choose to emphasize the full. Sometimes people really touch me. If there’s a group I feel compelled to raise money for and feel I can help, I do that.
Wake people up to the problem, and they will help. That keeps me going. I focus on what little I can do and do it well. Both Firelight and GRACE have stringent guidelines. I give through the U.S. groups to make sure there’s monitoring and oversight.
BPGL: What can people outside of Africa can do to help?
ANDE: What you asked is a complicated question. If you’re coming from the States, you don’t know the people on the ground. But you can connect with people on the ground from Firelight, the Steven Lewis Foundation, Partners in Health, GRACE, and a few others. If you donate to those groups, you know the money will directly benefit the communities that need help.
I have a Take Action page on my website, for donations to the Firelight Foundation, GRACE, and others. It really makes a difference in kids’ lives. For example, the head of GRACE USA is Natasha Martin. She decided she would put all the orphans in a certain community through school. She’s paying for 200 orphans in primary school through college.
You can also get educated — read a book or two. You won’t get excited till you find out more about it. I put books on the bookstore page of my website that I think are written in a way to connect with people. If you’re interested in adoption, you should read There’s No Me Without You, by Melissa Fay Greene.
Or, if you have the means to travel and see it firsthand, there are ways to do that. But the experience is beyond a level of adventure a lot of people want to go through. If you go there, you will be changed.
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Note: Proceeds from the sale of Ande’s book, Face to Face: Children of the AIDS Crisis in Africa, will be used to support orphaned and vulnerable children in Sub-Saharan Africa, a few of whom are profiled in the book. The book is available on the web at www.facetofaceafrica.com. By purchasing directly from the book’s website rather than an online bookstore, significantly more of the proceeds will be available to support the work that Ande and Richter sponsor.
As you plan your holiday shopping, please consider giving Face to Face to someone on your list. Your purchase will be a double blessing, as it brings a gift of love to the recipient and a gift of hope to children who have little else.