Our AIDS Walk in South Africa:
Accept the Challenge - Walk for Hope

by Mary Beth Hagey with Jill Hagey

In the rural province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 40% of the young women are HIV positive. Despite this and other depressing AIDS statistics, the people we met here are not a depressed people. Last year, in an effort to make an incremental difference in these womens’ lives, my 15-year-old daughter, Jill, and I traveled for 30 hours across 9 time zones to participate in the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation Walk for Hope in South Africa from October 3rd to 10th.

AIDS FOUNDATION BACKGROUND


In 1981, when Elizabeth Glaser was given a tainted blood transfusion after the delivery of her first child, Ariel, she asked her doctor if it was possible that she could have been infected with AIDS. He assured her it was inconceivable. Unfortunately, he was wrong. Elizabeth transmitted this disease via breastfeeding to her daughter and then in utero to her son Jake before becoming symptomatic and being diagnosed as HIV positive.

Ariel died when she was 7 years old. After Ariel’s death, Elizabeth joined forces with her two closest friends to spread awareness, bring hope to children with AIDS, and influence legislation so other families would not suffer the same fate as hers (Elizabeth, too, passed away in December, 1994). Her legacy, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatrics AIDS Foundation has been extremely successful in jump starting critical research for children, educating policymakers, advocating for federal funds and private fundraising to pay for leading research in this arena.

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHY WE DID IT

This story of one woman and her daughter who could make such an incredible impact on the world inspired both my daughter and myself to open our hearts and take that first step and go to South Africa for the 7-day AIDS Walk. Between the two of us, we raised over $30,000 that will fund research, volunteer testing and counseling, as well as drug therapy to expectant mothers and their newborns. (To go on the walk, participants must guarantee a minimum of $10,000 in fundraising).

On the first day of the trip, I turned 44. While the trip was hot and grueling, it was the best birthday gift I could have ever given myself.

Upon our arrival in Johannesburg , we were taken to the Children’s Feeding Scheme where 14,000 children are fed 2 meals each day, 6 days a week. The staff also teach mothers how to plant gardens to grow their own food. We were warmly greeted with smiles, hugs and songs. This welcoming reception would follow us the entire week.
I was glad to have packed a bagful of art supplies to hand out to children as well as a duffel bag filled with stuffed animals, supplied by a variety of my close friends.

HOSPI TAL VISIT

From the Feeding Scheme, we went to the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital where we began our journey with a symbolic walk through the gates of the world’s largest hospital. The South Africans celebrated our coming with a Braai (cookout) and a blessing by tribal healers and community ambassadors.

Later that evening, we were touched by Florence Ngobeni, a young woman who shared her struggle with AIDS. Florence was raped 9 years ago. Not only did she become pregnant as a result, but she became infected with HIV. She had a beautiful baby girl unable to survive her first year of life. Florence is a now spokesperson and offers hope to women at Chris Hani. She explained that her body has become resistant to the antiretroviral medications, and her future is uncertain. It was quite an emotional start.

The following day, we toured the same hospital and saw the numerous programs implemented to combat this pandemic. Doctors and staff not only treat the medical side of AIDS (antiretrovirals, nevarapine and replacement milk for newborns), but they treat the psychosocial effects such as depression. We were amazed at the compounding factors that the doctors and scientists must take into account - poverty, unhealthy diets, a government that has denied how the HIV virus is transmitted, unemployment, and the stigma surrounding those who reveal their status.

AIDS IN SMALL TOWNS

After witnessing AIDS in the urban areas, we boarded a flight and headed to KwaZulu-Natal to see the impact in the rural communities. We set up base camp at the Futululu Environmental Center and campground. We had beds to sleep in and a shower house with flush toilets and warm water. Each morning we would rise early (5:30am), shower, eat and set out for the day’s walk. We would log 50 miles during the week.

The countryside was hilly and picturesque - dotted with round structures constructed of mud or concrete with thatched roofs where families resided. They have no electricity or running water, so we often shared the road with grazing cattle and women carrying water on their heads. We would walk about 10 miles each day.

LOCAL FRIENDLINESS

Unfortunately, we hit a heat wave that made the journey even more difficult. I kept reminding myself that trudging in the heat paled in comparison to those living with AIDS. One day, the temperature rose above 110 degrees! Our group exceeded 30 walkers, so we were quite the sight on those lonely clay roads. Locals would hustle out to wave at us saying "Sawubona" or hello in Zulu and we would say it back. More often than not, shoeless children would join us.

One morning as I was walking past a group of women, I greeted them, asked them how they were and told them I was walking for hope. One of the women who was carrying her infant tied to her back said something to me in Zulu. In frustration, I told her in English that I had just recited all I knew in Zulu and that I didn’t understand. A young girl who spoke English told me that this woman was proud of us for bringing hope and that we had made her heart light that day!

Each day held something wonderful for us. Another highlight included a visit to a primary school. As we approached in our white vans, we saw children lined up at the windows, not sure what to make of the sight. They rarely saw automobiles and certainly never seen this many Caucasians. They poured out of their classrooms and performed a Zulu dance.

Afterwards, the students had many questions for my daughter and the other teen on the trip. Through their principal, who interpreted their questions, they inquired about their age - they couldn’t believe that Jill was only 15; at 5’10" she appeared too tall to be that young. They also wanted to know why they had come to their country. Jill told them that she wanted to learn about their country, learn about AIDS and most importantly, she wanted them to know that kids could make a difference. They all clapped for her.

These young people had never had their pictures taken and were amazed at our digital cameras and the images of themselves on the screens. We brought them a small bag of chips as a way to say thanks for letting us visit. Most of them had never had a bag of chips, and certainly never had their own without sharing!

WORTHWHILE TRIP

Our trip to South Africa was gratifying on different levels. We saw the faces that coincided with the data that is AIDS in Africa. We witnessed great devastation and tremendous hope in the global battle against HIV/AIDS. Kate Carr, the CEO of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation feels this is a time when we should all be asking the question, "When the worst epidemic in the history of the world was upon us, what did I do to stop it?"
Jill and I can say that we took that first step to make a difference. Upon returning home, we feel that this trip strengthened our commitment and sense of responsibility to be part of solution.

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WHEN YOU GO, BE SURE TO PACK:
*Camel bladder backpacks.
*Several pairs of shoes.
*Pants with zip-off legs.
*Hats, t-shirts, and clothing treated with mosquito repellent.
* Medication and blister remedies.
*Energy bars.

NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES:
* www.kff.org/southafrica/index.com  - to learn more about South Africa.
* www.pedaids.org  - to learn more about the Elizabeth Glaser Foundation and AIDS Walk.
 
Mother Mary Beth and daughter Jill Hagey wrote this article for BAFT soon after returning from their trip to South Africa. They live in Burlingame.

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