The only sound I could hear under the forest shade was the creaking of branches in a copse of bamboo. The wind was gentle, blowing in from Lake Victoria, the famed source of the Nile River. Just ahead of me, 35 children from all over Uganda, all of whom were HIV-positive but taking antiretroviral medication, waited patiently in line at the beginning of the jungle gym course that included swinging bridges and tight rope balancing.
The children were participating in the second annual Ariel Children's Camp, a week-long camp sponsored by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. The camp is named for Elizabeth Glaser's daughter, Ariel, who passed away from AIDS-related illnesses in 1988. Would the campers manage to stay the course? Were they afraid?
The silence was broken as the first girl, Diana, started swaying on tires hung from ropes and tried to cross from one platform to another. For the next two hours, there were screams of fear, encouragement, and laughter. The finale came as each child -- I think Agaba was first this time -- climbed high into a huge tree platform and then, in a safety harness, launched along a zip line, down 100 feet to the ground at the far end of the course. The theme of the week was "Journey of Life: Hope and Peace on the Way," and the zip line represented each of our worst fears as we launched off the tree platform.
The week also included a visit to the source of the River Nile as she begins her 90-day journey to the Mediterranean Sea, as well as many other games and exercises. There was a soccer game that never seemed to end. For me, the most significant event of this year's camp was the exercise, "Journey of Life." Each child made a linear drawing of his or her life so far. Each drawing looked like a meandering river -- along the way were key life events. "I was born." "My mother died." "My older sister died." "My aunt told me I was HIV-positive." "No money so I stopped going to school." And so on...
One twist of the river on one boy's drawing said "suicide." I took the young boy aside and we talked. He told me things had been so bad in his life that he had swallowed his whole month's supply of antiretroviral tablets at once. He is still alive despite the dangerous overdose, and luckily feeling much better now.
With so many negatives in these children's lives, each positive event is momentous. Our camp is a series of positive events. New friends, encouragement, prayer, songs at night around the campfire, silly jokes. At the end of the camp, each camper was asked to name one thing they would take with them and one thing they would leave behind. I said I would take the memory of the children's animated faces when they danced, and I would leave behind any discouragement.
Just behind the jungle gym at camp, there is a 10-foot ant hill. It represents the mountain still to be climbed by each child in his or her journey of life. But Camp Ariel remains for each of us the base camp for reinforcement, renewal, and refreshment.
The kids called me Taata wa Baana (father of the children). I am looking at a card they gave me now. "Merry Christmas," it says. Inside, each child has written their name. Mulindwa, Immaculate, Kenneth, Balaba Willy, Rose, Alex, Eric, Asasira...
And so my favorite week of the year at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation in Uganda came to an end.