Can you hear me?

As told to Jorga Mesfin
For Tsehay

They call me Sew-Yelesh. I am only seven years old, but I am the future. I have had dreams of being a bright future, but from the look of things so far, I might have been cursed and relegated to be a hopeless future. But, I AM the future. If you are thinking of ignoring me, you better think again because there are about a million of us in Ethiopia. Yes, a million of us AIDS orphans.

My mother did pick a name for me but I have forgotten it. After she died, the neighborhood kids found a more fitting name for me in Sew-Yelesh. It breaks my spirit to be called that, but it is also very true. I am Sew Yelesh. I have nobody now except my poor grandmother. Someone told me that it could all change for the better if I came to you for help. I am hoping that I can regain my name and my identity if I came to you with my story.

Many of my fellow orphans have had to die, unnoticed, from AIDS. Some of them were not so lucky and are still living homeless, motherless and hungry. I am trying to be different. I might die neglected but never unnoticed. And, if enough people care, I might even live to be the bright future I have always dreamed about. I want you to read my story. I would rather have your ears now, than accept your flowers at my funeral. We both know well enough that flowers at my funeral would be too easy for you, and too late for me!

My mother died of AIDS. And donít you dare suggest that she was a prostitute! My mother was just like you. She worked hard to make her dreams come true. She loved, and hoped to be loved back. And she did all she knew how to provide for her children. Everyone who knew her said that she sold the best injera at the gullit. We did not live a rich life, but we did not live a sad one either.

But, then she got sick.

It started as coughs that would go on through the night. My grandmother told her that it was berd and a few bottles of Tebel would do the trick. And my mother drank and drank and drank. But the coughing did not stop. She still felt strong for the time being and so she kept on with her business for about a year. But finally she became tired. Her health got worse, and on top of that she started having trouble eating food. Everything she ate, she threw-up. Her tongue and lips were always sore and after a while she could not walk anymore. My grandmother tried to do her best, but she could not wash my mother by herself nor could she carry her to the toilet. The University student from the next house over came to help one day, but never returned. I donít like him too much. He told his little brother not to play with me, and never, ever, ever to touch me because he would die like my mother if he did so. Now my mother is dead and no one wants to play with me. And I have been told to tell everyone that she died of berd.

Are you still with me?

I wish this was just a depressing story but it is the life of many more kids like me. Actually, if all of you were in Addis Ababa right now, one out of six of you would be HIV + (I am assuming you are all adults). By the end of 1999, because of AIDS, there will be 20,000 children without a mother or both parents. And if you can imagine it, some of them have it much worse than I do. Keenatae síga yenetilegn, I am not lying to you. My mother told me never to lie. Just last night, a 100 people got infected with HIV in our fair city. And there are more of us following suit: 20 pregnant women out of 100 walking the cityís dirty streets are HIV +. I donít know what you are doing on December 31, 1999. In Addis Ababa, we will be counting the 20,000th new HIV infection this year alone. Egzayr esewiren.

Since I am child, I can still hang on to optimism. Barely. The good news is that there is good news. Well, for one, if all of you were in Addis Ababa right now, five out of six of you would NOT be HIV +. You could help others and yourselves remain HIV-free by talking about it with all those you love and cherish. Maybe you will come across someone like the University student who is intelligent but ignorant. Maybe you can teach them to "try a little tenderness" instead of spitting upon and running away from less fortunate ones like my mother. You can tell them that they canít run away from themselves. Oh! My mother would sure have appreciated someone like you.

One more thing for hope: There are relatively few infections among children between the ages of 5-14. This is the "Window of Hope." If children like me can be taught to protect ourselves from HIV infection early enough, we can remain free of HIV for our entire lives.

I am only seven years old, but I AM THE FUTURE. I have had dreams of being a bright future, but from the look of things so far, I might have been cursed and relegated to be a hopeless future. But, I AM the future. What you decide to do with my story will be what you decide to do with the future. If you ignore my story, you will be ignoring the future. Yet, when the future eventually dawns, it will be dilapidated because you ignored it.

Maybe, if you pay attention and care, maybe I will no longer be called Sew-Yelesh. ButÖ can you hear me?