Sitting in the open doorway on a concrete floor in a red checked dress, little Filomena lifted her arms and her liquid, dark brown eyes to a tall bearded stranger. All of the other kids at this remote one-story orphanage had either run out, or been carried out, to swarm the white guests who had just driven up into the red sandy yard. Already undersized at twelve months, she weighed little more than most babies half her age. Like one-third of the babies born to HIV positive mothers, Filomena tested positive soon after birth for the virus that usually kills even the healthiest of those who get it. Most of these babies contact the virus during the birthing process, often through their eyes.
Mozambique has the fastest growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa with over sixteen percent of the country’s population infected. There are over half a million AIDS orphans; 140,000 children and adults will die of AIDS this year. When I picked Filomena up, HIV/AIDS became much more than a statistic, a cause, a disease, a moral issue, or a public health policy debate. HIV/AIDS sat in my lap, looked me in the eye, and smiled.
Every day a staff member at this small orphanage takes one of the fourteen children to the central hospital in Maputo for HIV testing and for anti-retroviral drugs, the most effective treatment against AIDS. Since the orphanage’s van was recently stolen, the round trip takes several hours by public transportation. The treatments at the hospital are free; they are provided by international aid groups. Mozambique has the fastest growing HIV/AIDS population in Africa.
Filomena’s tiny body carried a death sentence. From her very first HIV test, the results consistently turned up positive. But the last one had come back negative. Was a miracle sitting in my lap today? Only time and a few more tests will tell. I am one bearded stranger who hopes so.