The Tapestry of Broken People

This week I walked through the Washington DC convention center filled with people who didn't look like they belonged to one another. Millionaires in business suits. Students in jean shorts. Women in saris and sandals. Muslims with head scarves. Gay men with AIDS ribbons. African bishops with collars. Politicians, NGO workers, musicians, rabbis, children, doctors, journalists, sex workers, pastors, scientists. There were more than 20,000 people from every corner of the world who convened together because they actually did have something in common: fighting AIDS. 20120726-230435.jpg

HIV/AIDS has devastated our world. It is the cruelest of plagues that mocks the immune system, breaking it down so that it cannot survive basic infections that a healthy immune system could naturally fight. Worse than that, it carries with it a social stigma that most HIV positive people would claim is more personally and emotionally excruciating than the actual physical effects of the disease. The virus has taken millions of mothers, fathers, children and friends and has left a continent of orphans in the rubble of loss and grief. There is no current vaccine and there is no cure.

And yet, there has been so much progress since HIV/AIDS entered our human world 30 years ago. Today, HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence. It is a chronic disease that can be managed with the proper treatment, care and support. Today, an HIV positive woman can prevent passing the virus to her baby. Today, many people living with HIV/AIDS can be open about their status without being ostracized by their communities. Today, it is completely reasonable to believe in achieving an AIDS-free generation. This is REMARKABLE.

We are at tipping point in the fight against HIV/AIDS and we cannot back down. There are still too many people who do not know they are carrying the virus; too many people who don't have access to the life-saving drugs; too many girls and women who can't protect themselves from sexual violence; too many nations that have backed down in financial commitments to the Global Fund; too many fears by people who struggle to move past judgment.

Because HIV/AIDS affects the physical, social, emotional, spiritual and economical health of a person and a community, the fight against HIV/AIDS has required scientists, activists, corporations, development workers, philanthropists, healthcare providers, economists, congregations, and many, many others. They are as diverse as they come. Some of them have been working toward the end of AIDS since it first showed up 30 years ago. And some of them have recently joined the fight with fresh energy and passion. Some of them HIV positive. Some of them HIV negative. All of us HIV affected.

And as oddly matched as we all may seem, it is a beautiful tapestry of broken people who are bound by a relentless commitment to reach the end of HIV/AIDS; and I am so proud to be one of them.

A Reason to Hold on to Hope

It has been so sweet to be back in Lwala. Of all the places that I travel, this is the one that feels the most like home. They affectionately call me Anyango Nyalwala - which means born in the morning, daughter of Lwala. It is the rare and beautiful place where my work, marriage and calling intersect with one another. I first stumbled upon this western Kenyan village in 2005 when two brothers lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, and I accompanied a friend of theirs to pay our respects. They shared with me their late father's dream for a clinic to be built in their home community. I looked across the plot of land where they hoped to someday build. This village was several miles away from any main road, without electricity or running water. I could not have imagined then, that I (and eventually my future husband) would get to be a participant in actualizing such a dream.

In the beginning years at Blood:Water Mission, we took a risk to seed fund the opening of the Lwala clinic and drill its first borehole. It was a bare-bones start, but the Lwala community pressed forward amidst a 24% HIV prevalence rate and one of the highest maternal and child death rates in the country. In 2009, they recruited James to serve as Lwala Community Alliance's Executive Director. Today, there are four American staff and nearly 100 Kenyan staff working to break down the barriers of extreme poverty and HIV/AIDS in this community. And slowly by slowly, what was once an empty lot of ambitious dreams is now occupied with a hospital, public health outreach, educational programs, a women's sewing co-op and demonstration plots for agriculture and nutrition for HIV positive people.


Today, James and I hopped on the back of a motorbike to make some home visits into the communities. As we rode slowly along the uneven dirt road, we passed familiar faces and homes that have woven their stories into ours.

We collected stories of families whose lives have been changed since the hospital and outreach programs began. We held babies whose lives would never have been possible without the medical intervention and safe delivery in the year-old maternity ward. We met mothers who have been supported and encouraged by the LCA's community health workers. We met children whose diarrheal diseases have disappeared since the rain tanks, latrines and health clubs graced their schools.


It has been my joy to return to this place over and over again for the last seven years - and to see the beautiful work of the staff and community here. This one community has become the heartbeat of our vocation and calling in Africa, and I am so thankful that we have a place in Africa that we know and love deeply, and are known and loved in return. There will continue to be the unbearable stories that will break our hearts, but side by side, they are accompanied by the ones that give us reason to hold on to hope.

Scrub, Rinse, Wring, Repeat

This morning, I awoke with a simple chore ahead of me: laundry. I have been traveling through the desert of northern Kenya and the volcanic hills of Rwanda, and have arrived in western Kenya with a pile of dirty clothes. Contrary to the ease with which we wash our clothes in the US, doing laundry in Africa is more time consuming and labor-intensive. Instead of Tide, washing machines and dryers, we use rain water, home-made soap, two basins, two hands and the equatorial sun.

The best time for washing clothes is in the early morning while the air is still cool and the clothes can dry in the mid-day sun. I filled a basin with rain water collected from a tank (thanks to Blood:Water Mission) and added a liquid soap made for washing hands, dishes and clothes. (Some of the women who had been trained by Blood:Water Mission in water, sanitation and hygiene were the ones who now make and sell the liquid soap to the community!)

I soaked the clothes in the soapy water and did my best to scrub the dirt out of them. From clinics to schools and churches to homes, remnants of the places I have traveled released themselves from the fabrics of my journey into the basin. I spent a good hour and a half with my hands to my clothes - soaking, scrubbing, rinsing, wringing, and hanging to dry.

I felt gratitude for the access to water and to soap. I felt admiration for the women beside me who do this on a regular basis with competence and strength. And I felt conflicted about the drastic differences between life here and in the US. I wondered who I felt more sorry for: the women here who are bound to the slow and heavy labor of life's necessities or Americans whose fancy machines have developed efficiencies and expectations that leave little room for the slow and connected life.

When a Homeless Man Changed My Life

I believe that God speaks to us in the everyday moments of our lives - the people we pass by on the street, the whispers of heaven through a quiet walk in the woods, the glimpses of new perspective that come from the simple art of paying attention. When I was nine, I met a homeless man who changed my life. He stood alone on a San Francisco corner with a droop in his face and an ache in his voice. He was hungry.

I couldn't stop thinking about him while I was out to dinner with my mom, and I stared at my food like it didn't belong to me. I wrapped my hamburger up and walked back to give the hungry man my dinner. We walked street after street in search for him, but we never found him. Since then, I have been walking through life looking to know more people like him.

When I was 13, I regularly snuck out of church to hang out at the city park with my homeless friends. I'd buy them a sandwich from Subway or Arby's and listen to their stories. I learned that there were countless hungry bellies and beaten souls out there, and that life is a battle for so many.

When I was 15, I showed up to volunteer at the Red Cross shelter and they were so short on help, they immediately appointed me kitchen facilitator - ensuring that the residents would be served dinner each night. I spent three years rushing between school and extra-curricular activities and building a community of friends among the staff and residents of the shelter.

I went to college to become a nurse. But then I passed out every time I visited a hospital. So I got into politics and international studies. I quickly learned that the stories of the poor in America are a mere sample of what the rest of the world experiences. While in nursing school, I had learned about HIV/AIDS and how the virus attacks the weakest parts of our immune system. While studying international relations, I discovered that the HIV/AIDS crisis was also attacking the weakest members of our society: women and children in Africa.

When I was 21, I seized an opportunity to bring attention to those who have been most affected by the HIV/AIDS and water crises in Africa. I thought of that homeless man and how he was ignored amidst personal suffering, and I wished for a different story for him and for all who have felt written off and forgotten.

Today at 30, I think often about what my life would have looked like had there not been a sacred grace at nine years old when one person's humanity lured my own, and it continues to affect the way I live today. May we all risk the art of paying attention.