Today was a day that left a bittersweet flavor stuck to the roof of my mouth -- like the first gulp of fresh apple cider on a midwest fall day. There's still a little sunshine hitting the freshly picked apple trees but those days are almost gone. In that moment you grieve and begin to embrace the fall colors and crisp air. My story may leave you with a sense of faith and hope from one magnificent moment. It may also create some grief. Both of those feelings crept up on me as I had fulfilled a deeply personal promise to a dead child. I wept at it's simplicity, its gift and the truth that ordinary individuals can make extraordinary things happen.
Let me reach back in time to when I met a tall, sandy haired fearless adventurer, Louie Greeff. We met on a hot August morning in 2007 in the lobby of my hotel in South Africa. This white South African had survived many prison experiences and had once swam a portion of the crocodile infested Zambezi, Africa's 4th largest river, for charity. He has this huge laugh and a heart that is as big as the river. When you hear stories about Louie -- they include him lending a hand, helping people and desperately trying to make African's daily lives remotely bearable.
Originally when we skyped via a mutual acquaintance, he offered to help me border jump from South Africa to Zimbabwe. He was part navigator, part body guard and someone who knew the intimate details of the dark sides of these two countries. At the last minute my fear pushed me to fly into Harare, thinking it would be safer. Funny thing is that he took the original route and made it safely to Zimbabwe. My trip culminated with getting stuck in a Zimbabwe prison. Note to Self: Stop Listening.
Our first meeting came after my deportation from Zimbabwe and three very long baths. We hugged with some relief that I was still alive to meet him. After hours of sharing stories, Louie had to go back home to his wife. He handed me a small padded envelope that had yellowed with age. I gently spilled out the contents on the table. It contained a white beaded bracelet with a heart, a personal poem and a laminated photo of Oprah Winfrey attached to a piece of string long enough to fit around a neck. He shook a bit when he said her name, Ethel Moyo, and then shared the sad tale.
Louie met Ethel when she was 9 years old. She was standing on the sidewalk at a fuel stop in Bulawayo, he was going the opposite direction to Victoria Falls. Her clothing was in tatters, barely covering her small frame. "She asked me to give her a lift to Bulawayo. She needed to get to a hospital or clinic for medicine." He felt her pulse and forehead, she was sweating profusely. Louie recognized the symptoms of malaria. He knew she had to get help. How she had gotten this far and was still standing amazed and shocked him. In the volatile Zimbabwe climate, a white man taking a 9 year old African girl into his car could be very risky. He thought for a second and realized he should save Ethel and damn the risk.
Greeff took her to the hospital and paid 15 Zim dollars for admission, 85 Zim dollars for her stay and medication, plus 20 Zim dollars for an ambulance to take her back home. He left after a few hours when she was treated by the doctor and medical staff. This chance meeting brought Louie and Ethel together like a surrogate father and daughter. Ethel had lost most of her family members, including both parents, to malaria. Two older brothers and a sister remained. The older sister prostituted herself to feed Ethel and her brothers. The kids had previously lived in shantytown in Bulawayo until Mugabe's thugs demolished the camp. Now they lived in a shack in the bush on the outskirts of Victoria Falls.
Ethel was a very quiet and respectful girl -- from what Louie saw, her brothers didn't care much for her. She had a friend called Newman, who had one arm and a club foot. Louie gave money to Newman to look after Ethel for him. Newman really cared for her. One evening Ethel came to Louie worried about Newman, she had not seen him for two days. Louie remembered that Central Intelligence teams were in Victoria Falls asking political questions -- when they asked Louie what he though of their president he declined and said it wasn't his place to say anything as he was South African. Newman had not held back and blatantly told the men that Robert Mugabe was a murderer and a piece of rubbish. The men glared at Newman, as they were in a crowded recreation center. When Ethel told Louie that he was gone, something clicked in his mind. He knew there was a connection to that incident and Newman's disappearance.
Ethel and Louie searched for hours and finally found him on the riverbank at 3 am. The CIO had beaten him with a plank covered with 6 inch nails sticking out. When the men thought he was dead they tossed him into the river in a known crocodile infested area. He was still alive when they found him. Ethel and Louie took Newman to a doctor for emergency surgery. The doctor transferred him while Louie and Ethel were away and Newman disappeared. They never saw Newman again.
Louie knew Ethel for 10 years, until she died of malaria at the age of 19. Louie asked me to take Ethel's package and make sure it got to Oprah Winfrey. I hadn't the slightest ideas how to get it into Oprah's hands, but who could refuse to fulfill a dying girl's request?
Last weekend Oprah Winfrey was personally handed the package. I can't disclose the relationships or the nature of the hand-off but I emailed Louie to let him know his promise to Ethel was fulfilled. This is part of the email: "I cannot believe her day has finally come. Ethel is here with me and she is smiling. She can truly rest in peace." Nearly one million people die from Malaria each year, mostly children younger than 5 years old. How many more will die before we stop this treatable disease?
An excerpt from Ethel's poem:
Some years ago, my sister died
Malaria took her life
I cried and cried and cried
At three years old, her eyes ablaze
Her fever reached a peak
That night was long and cold
But she never tried to speak.
Her skin to touch was hot as coals
Her tiny body quaked the night
Convulsions took its toll
Malaria had another claim
Some years ago my father died
Malaria took his life
I cried and cried and cried!
My mother stood the vigil hours
So frail from lack of sleep.
From within her bosom came the deep,
Relentless wave, a disease steep
Can hill a human tower
My father was the village chief
A man of brilliant power
He ruled our land with fist and sickle
But couldn't move a limb
And when he died
I cried and cried and cried
And so too the village people.
Rest in peace, Ethel Moyo.