Africans Need More Than Our Sympathy

It was a beautiful fall afternoon when I arrived at the soccer game in which my 16-year-old son Cletus was playing. This was his first opportunity to play on the varsity team of Churchill High School. As the sun glittered and the leaves fell from the trees, I watched proudly as Cletus led an offensive push toward the goal. I was amazed at his strength and determination.

My mind flashed back--as it frequently does--to the days when my family and I were living and working in Lusaka, Zambia, where we made a life-changing decision to adopt Cletus. I started working in Zambia in 1994, and then moved there with my family two years later, because my wife, Mindi, and I share a deep love of Africa. We are both doctors, and we wanted to ensure that the poor received basic health services. The Zambians welcomed us warmly and impressed us with their faith, as well as their love for community and family.

In our first months there, we saw death and suffering from poverty and AIDS everywhere we turned. As I drove my three sons to school each morning, we would pass a city cemetery that was full of mourners. We would hear the wailing cries of parents and loved ones as the long funeral processions reached the seemingly endless rows of graves.

One image that is burned into my memory is that of a small child's coffin resting on the floor of our family van. We had used our van for many family outings, but now it was pressed into service as a makeshift hearse, carrying the coffin of one of the children who had lived in our town, a baby named David. He had died of AIDS after only three months of life.

Nor can I forget my many friends and co-workers who succumbed to the disease. They didn't have access to the lifesaving AIDS medications that I knew would have kept them alive for less than a dollar a day. During our four years in Zambia I went to so many of their funerals it brought me to despair. I could not stop thinking that what I was seeing was just a fraction of a crisis that would destroy many more lives. I felt angry because I knew that the most effective programs--those that educate young people about prevention and provide patients with lifesaving medications--were so small and underfunded, as they still are.

One day, as I was driving through Lusaka, I came upon a minivan parked near a busy intersection. I was shocked to see a young man selling coffins to passersby. I pulled the car over and wept. I couldn't believe I was living in a world that would let this epidemic take so many lives.

To renew our faith and conquer our grief, Mindi and I worked with the wife of Zambia's vice president to help start an orphanage in our community. We organized a volunteer program in which Americans living there joined together with Zambians to build a safe place for these vulnerable children. Mindi and I fell in love with a bright-eyed, healthy boy (only about 25 percent of children born to HIV-infected parents have HIV themselves) who had recently lost his mother. He stood out from the other children by boldly telling us--and everyone who would listen--that he wanted to find a family. When we returned to the United States, we brought Cletus with us as our adopted son.

My wife and I now have five sons, and we teach them that America is greatest when it opens its heart to others' suffering. My sons frequently accompany me to demonstrations for more funding, and last summer Cletus returned to Zambia to volunteer at the orphanage.

Every day I remind myself that there are 42 million people in the world living with AIDS, and that 8,000 of them will needlessly die that day. I reflect on the fact that there are 14 million children who, like Cletus, lost their parents to the disease.

We can do more. United Nations experts estimate that it will cost at least $15 billion a year to respond to AIDS. Considering the United States' relative wealth (it controls 30.8 percent of global GNP), it should pay one third of that amount, yet our legislators have approved just $2.4 billion.

In my house, we frequently discuss how we can--as a family and as individuals--help end this scourge. We often pray together for those who are suffering, and as Cletus enters adulthood, my wife and I have made sure he understands the choices he must make in order to stay healthy. But we also know how important it is for all Americans to mobilize their communities, their schools and their religious groups to raise money and take political action. If we do, people who are living with AIDS may get to see their children grow up, full of hope for the future. Mindi and I are fortunate beyond measure because we can do just that, and because we have Cletus to inspire us with his accomplishments and his life.