Part III: Black Sheep

There’s more than one way to make a family. In the US, that’s a motto often touted by social liberals who seek marriage equality. In Zambia, its form is a bit different.

Huts no bigger than a college dorm room will host ten family members. Uncles and aunts adopt orphaned nieces and nephews. HIV-positive single mothers move back in with their parents, leaving the grandparents to care for the child if the mother dies. Cousins call each other brothers and sisters. Some orphans do not know that their grandparents aren’t their biological parents.

And most notably, a combination of ARVs, family planning and sheer chance have led several sets of biological siblings to have different HIV statuses. Oldest and youngest siblings are positive, while the middle five children might be negative. Twins might be HIV-positive, but the cousins they live with aren’t.

Usually, it’s the HIV-positive orphans taken in by HIV-negative relatives. Their status, disconnected from the other family members, renders them black sheep in the family.

Positive or not, HIV/AIDS is a virus that infects the whole family, but aid is not distributed as evenly.

Nonprofit organizations focused on AIDS relief provide extra rations or food stamps to families with the express purpose of providing for the HIV-positive child. But no family works that way. Instead, the increased rations are distributed throughout the family and the sick child suffers.

In impoverished families, everyone is hungry. In impoverished families, everyone is struggling to get to school. It’d be insulting to the whole unit to provide just one of the children with specific care.

Today we met with Lofta, a 13-year-old girl in the Arm’s Reach Care program. Behind their hut is a small enclosure made of twigs and tattered cloth. That is where they shower and use the bathroom. Her relatives, who are poor indeed and still care for her, looked onto the examination with peculiar curiosity. To them, Lofta is no different from the rest of the family, and yet she receives extra outside attention and care.

Nonprofit aid can’t do everything, and it definitely can’t sustain whole families. But whole families, and not just a lone or few sick children, need help.

Selfless caregivers take in black sheep family members, and then do not benefit from it. It’s a system with no winners. It’s a conundrum that leaves development workers baffled.

About Annu Subramanian

Annu Subramanian is an journalist, story collector, frequent re-reader, music lover and budding world traveler.
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2 Responses to Part III: Black Sheep

  1. Suresh Subramanian says:

    Annu…your 3-part observation is very timely. With the study released last week that transmission of the HIV virus (at a population level) can be slowed down through expanded and sustained availability of ARVs, poverty, hunger and stigma (aka Black Sheep, Porridge and Soccer in annuspeak) have become the biggest transmitter of the epidemic. We know how to tackle that.

  2. Amy Patashnik says:

    Annu — Reading your blog on a quiet Sunday afternoon in San Diego, I felt transported by your beautiful entries. Your easy-going, unaffected writing style is so engaging, and your posts, some lighthearted and funny, some so profoundly moving, are eloquent. Anne’s photos just add to the poignancy. Thank you for sharing your remarkable experience. (I’m sure your teachers at SRHS would be proud!) — Amy

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