I was walking home a little while back in the late afternoon; it wasn’t quite “sunset,” but rather that canary-lit expanse of time filmmakers will often refer to as “The Golden Hour.” I had had a perfectly pleasant day and felt completely unhurried as I picked my way over the coral-carved paths and alongside eerie, post-harvest cornfields. At one point, I drew near a construction area which, after hours, was often taken over by neighborhood children. They (temporarily) filch building materials to construct their own splendid creations, wide huts and looming towers of cinderblock, discarded rope, and imagination.

On this day, a group of them had gathered to play “house” – or rather, what would you call a whole group of people playing house together, “village”? I knew most of them, so I paused briefly to watch.

”BaaaBAAAaaa,” one little girl called out in a pitch-perfect imitation of the distinct, sing-songy way my neighbors summon their husbands. She was no older than six, but had perfectly arranged her little kitchen: water can, firewood pile, vegetable basket. In the center were three carefully placed stones over a shallow fire pit, atop which sat a “pot” – or rather, an old tub that had once stored cooking fat. In it were a few handfuls of sand, which she stirred slowly and purposefully with a wooden stick.

”BaaaBAAAaaa!!” She yelled for him again, a tad more insistent this time. A little boy, unfamiliar to me, sat off to the side a few feet, knotting twine around a clump of plastic bags. He looked up and responded peevishly, ”What, woman?” The gruffness of his response was so incongruent with his slight frame and childish task (he was weaving a makeshift soccer ball) it was all I could do not to laugh out loud.

”I have made for you some porridge,” she said, lifting the end of the stick and pinching it as if to check the consistency. ”It is almost finished. Just come.”

”I don’t want porridge,” he told her, without looking up from his work. ”I’m not hungry.”

“Husband,” she wheedled gently, “You will eat the porridge. The doctor said you must eat something when you take your dawa ya Ukimwi.”

Dawa ya Ukimwi.

Or, in English, AIDS drugs.

The sweet innocence of shattered like cracked glass. I’ve seen and heard a lot of things in my time here, but the sudden departure startled me a bit. The “husband” gave a martyred sigh and came over to the kitchen, where he and his “wife” sat on coral blocks, eating “porridge” from the pot. It was that simple, that nonchalant. The other children, acting out their own domestic scenes, didn’t even look up.

As a health educator, I suppose this is (sort of) what we want: for discussion of the topic to be so commonplace that it’s no longer a horror that lurks in the shadows, but rather just another part of life that some people have to deal with. This is encouraging. Normalization strips away much of the fear, and makes tasks like getting tested less of an ordeal. In contrast, the first time I got tested for HIV back in America, the receptionist (it was just the two of us in an empty waiting room) wouldn’t say the name aloud, insisting instead on pulling a pen off someone else’s desk and using it to stab grimly at the word on my paperwork. Things that are unknown breed fear and misinformation. Just making something more familiar can do a lot towards attacking entrenched stigma.

Still, the quiet insouciance with which these children acted out an all-too-common domestic scene really ground home the message: we live in a world changed and shaped by illness. We can do all we can to fight its spread, but can we ever return to that comparatively-innocent mental space we inhabited before, before the great plague cut a swathe of millions through every nation, tribe, and village? Or – as so many epidemiologists predict – will there always be some new pathogen waiting in the wings? Some variant more virulent than before, so widespread that we will forever be seeking to normalize a new battle in the endless war of man versus microbe? (As author Richard Preston once said, if you’re looking at the long term, bet on the microbes.)

It’s impossible to know for certain, one way or the other.

I slipped away before the children noticed my presence and walked home in silence.

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