Today I met with our staff, had a brief meeting and then went with a field officer into the village of Mbatwe. This village sits near the Beira airport, a few hundred yards from the runway. Although only a small handful of planes land here each week, it is safe to say the people living near the tarmac haven’t ever traveled.
The village was clean – much cleaner than I remember last time. The homes are tidy and the sand outside is swept carefully. The trash is piled in neat pyres and burned in the evenings, leaving the morning air thick with a plastic odor. There were more latrines dug and being used and a few community wells that seemed rather well protected and maintained.
Walking through the village, you got a sense of well-being and pride. Children chased us everywhere we went, playing tag and begging to have their photos taken. Women and men of all ages waved at us as we walked by. They were picking rice in their paddies, mashing corn in large wood mortar and pestles, washing their laundry in buckets.
But when our field officer walked us a bit deeper into the village, the children who had been relentlessly following us suddenly fell away. Home after home we visited with people who were dying of HIV. Their bodies mere skeletons and their souls quickly fleeting. They told us that although they‚Äôd done what we‚Äôd asked ‚Äì been tested and enrolled in the free antiretroviral program ‚Äì the drugs had stopped. The hospital is temporarily out of stock, leaving thousands in these villages without the drugs they need to stay alive. With a two-week gap in coverage, God only knows how the virus mutates and then becomes impossible to treat. Simply, these people are dying and there is no one willing to care for them. Stigma surrounds their tiny huts. The system — widely touted — is failing them.
You grow a certain thickness of skin in this work. You have to. But today was just brutal. The last family we met with was a woman who had three girls aged 7, 3 and 1. The mother is HIV-positive and was told not to breastfeed. Her youngest is dying of malnutrition. Without her antiretrovirals, she is too lethargic to consider how to solve this problem on her own. Her neighbors are looking the other way. I sat, holding the three-year-old, and couldn‚Äôt believe how a child of just 15 pounds could have survived this long. We split a protein bar, the only food we had with us, among the four and watched as even the one-year-old carefully ate every morsel. I couldn‚Äôt hold back my tears. I won’t ever be able to describe the desperation I felt in this moment — or how this mother must feel watching her children die at her feet because she too is succubming.
I don’t know what to do for Mozambique, Mbatwe or even this family. I don’t know how to stop a disease that is wiping entire generations off the map. I don’t know how to draw attention to this problem or what to do with the attention if I had it. There are no simple solutions with HIV in Africa. But I know today, more than ever, I won’t stop fighting for the solutions.