I want to tell you a story of the most amazing little boy. His name was Sipho. He was 5 years old when I met him. He was deaf mute and living in an AIDS orphanage called Betty’s Haven in Nelspruit, South Africa. He had quite bad oral thrush and Karposi’s sarcoma lesions all over his body. This meant he was displaying symptoms of AIDS and was most likely born with HIV.
This kid was the happiest little boy I have ever had the pleasure of working with. He always carried a purple handbag with him everywhere (Tinky Winky had nothing on him!) and was always full of smiles. As soon as he saw me arrive at the gate he would jump up and down excitedly flapping his handbag and then leap into my arms and stay there quite happily for as long as he could. Although unable to speak he was able to communicate by gestures and facial expressions and we got along famously and would spend hours playing with the other children under the trees in the dusty driveway of his home.
Let me tell you a bit more about his home- the orphanage. Betty’s Haven was set up in about 1994 (I think) when an amazing woman called Betty Mandlazi found two children sleeping rough under a tree. She took them in and from then on took more and more children into her home. She had a small two bedroom bungalow. There were beds everywhere. She even had a giant tent in the garden with more beds. As far as I know she didn’t have formal funding for this – she got by on what grants she could from the rotary club etc. When I was there she had 25children living with her (yes in a two bed bungalow and a huge tent!). The youngest was a beautiful 9 days old little girl (who I liked to sing mockingbird too, it makes me sad when I sing it to my baby girl now). The eldest (the original two) were 15 and 17 who stayed on helping her with the other children. There were children with physical difficulties including a boy with cerebral palsy- but no wheelchair, communication devices or physiotherapy for him. He would get around by crawling or would happily balance on my feet and be walked around (with Sipho also clinging limpetlike to my leg!). It makes me sad that I can’t remember his name.
Betty is an absolutely incredible inspirational woman, and those wonderful kids taught me the true meaning of happiness, its not possessions, wealth, education, or even health- its being with people who make you smile. Sipho was ALWAYS smiling. Such a happy fabulous little boy. He is making me smile now just writing this- and a very teary too because I doubt very much Sipho is still with us. (Unfortunately I was unable to keep in touch with the orphanage- when I left in 2003 they didn’t have a phone or internet access or even spare money for international stamps so keeping in touch proved impossible. ) If Sipho was still alive he would be 13ish. Children who are born with HIV without treatment don’t often live into their teens. Since when I met him he was showing AIDS defining illness then it would be a miracle if he hadn’t become one of those “AIDS statistics” that we read but mean nothing too us because they are “just numbers”.
Well Sipho wasn’t just a number. He was and always will be the boy who taught me so much and meant so much to me and is one of the reasons I now do the work that what I do. He also taught me how I want try to bring my own daughter up- to be happy whatever the circumstances (a tall order I know) and I still get frustrated with the selfishness of some of the kids I work with who would sulk if they didn’t have the latest iPod or whatever. So I often used to tell them Sipho’s story and I like to think his story made a difference to their attitude (The cynic in me doubts it).
I wanted to write this to remember Sipho to the world and to remind teachers that when you teach about HIV and AIDS in your classroom in the UK that it isn’t just something that happens “over there”, or isn’t just faceless “statistics” or even token gestures of wearing a red ribbon. It’s happening to real people with real smiles that really can light up the world that are tragically being extinguished too soon because of HIV.
Sipho- you and your smile will be remembered forever.