Last month while the International AIDS Conference was held in Washington, D.C., I sat in a room full of HIV positive women in their home village of Ng'ombe, Zambia. Without knowing the other even existed, both parties spoke of the same hope: an AIDS-free generation. One party stood at a podium to deliver a well-crafted and poignant speech to a room of reporters and specialists while the other sat on the floor and spoke with slightly mispronounced English and antiretroviral drugs at the ready to a 21-year-old college student from the United States.
You might be wondering how I ended up in that room, with those women, a world away from home. Technically, I was picked to go on the trip with the ONE Campaign, a grassroots advocacy organization committed to eradicating extreme poverty in Africa by lobbying for increased foreign assistance. But truthfully, I'm just a lucky girl who will never forget my time with the women of the Chikumbuso Women and Orphans Project -- even if that time was only a few hours.
We visited Chikumbuso to see an example of successful U.S. foreign assistance firsthand. The women, and most of their children, who gather there each day are HIV positive. They require daily treatment to prevent their disease from transforming into the deadly AIDS, and the Zambian government pays for it. But with the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate at 15 percent of its population, Zambians cannot afford to pay for everyone who needs treatment.
The bipartisan commitment known as the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was the first commitment of its kind, and it is the largest action from any nation to combat a single disease internationally. It has provided funding for prevention and treatment in Zambia since 2004, effectively closing the once-deadly gap.
While sitting with the inspiring group, I learned all of the Chikumbuso women are widows who lost their husbands to AIDS. In one fell swoop, they also lost any form of income, leaving them uncertain when, and from where, their next meal would come. But PEPFAR and the Zambian government have since provided them with more than the life-saving drugs they need. They provided them with opportunity. An opportunity to take their lives back, to escape from stigma and destitution and to put food on the table for their children.
Chikumbuso built on that opportunity by teaching the widows a craft with which they can generate an income. With a learned strength and an indomitable will that only one who has faced desperation can acquire, these women are more than alive. They are living.
U.S. foreign assistance gave them this gift, and it must continue to be given. I've seen the success firsthand -- in their smiles, hugs and even laughter as they attempted to teach me a traditional Zambian song and dance.
Chikumbuso means remembrance, and the women solemnly remember those who lost the battle against AIDS. But this word is more than a name. It is also a command to the rest of the world as they shout, "Remember us!" through wide-mouthed smiles.
For more, check out this video made by our filmmaker, Ryan Youngblood.
The author in Africa. Photo credit: James Townsend
Two women demonstrating their craft at Chikumbuso. Photo Credit: James Townsend
A young woman at the Chikumbuso Women and Orphans Project. Photo Credit: James Townsend
Photo credit: James Townsend
Photo Credit: James Townsend
Photo Credit: James Townsend