The Children of AIDS
December 2008

by Ron Steinman

I do not believe that in America we pay enough attention to the AIDS scourge which is alive and destructive everywhere in Africa. The horror is such that many people probably take the tack that it is better not to see or hear the truth. Hiding under the covers protects a child from what he or she believes will cause harm. However, it does not and should not work for an adult. We are fortunate in the United States that as big a problem as is AIDS, the problem in Africa is beyond comparison. AIDS still maims and kills in America, but not nearly to the extent it does in Africa.

Kristen Ashburn's book on AIDS in Southern Africa, I AM BECAUSE WE ARE.
It is something to consider with the publication of a moving new book of photos called I Am Because We Are by Kristen Ashburn, published by powerHouse Books. Ashburn, an award-winning photojournalist known for her work in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the Russian penal system and the aftermath of the tsunami in Sri Lanka, turns her lens in this compelling new book on the AIDS pandemic in Southern Africa. In the United States our problem with AIDS does not approach the misery that it does for AIDS sufferers in Malawi and Zimbabwe.

The title, though tricky on the tongue, comes from the traditional African philosophy of Ubuntu, which describes how humanity is all connected. As the publisher explains, "It should remind us that the fate of the AIDS orphans in Malawi is tied to our own fate, that we all rise or fall together."

World AIDS Day was December 1. That has already passed, but it is only one day in the year, and not enough to remind people that in Africa there are one million Malawian children out of a population of 13 million who are orphans because of AIDS. Furthermore, it is worth noting that across Africa the estimated number of orphans due to AIDS is more than 12 million children.

© Kristen Ashburn
Joyce (Kristen Ashburn)
Ashburn has been documenting the AIDS pandemic in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2001. Many of the places she visited are rural with poor roads and where poverty rules. People often contract AIDS, she says, because of the complications of poverty, the seemingly endless march of refugees looking for a better life and virtually no government assistance for the sick. Parents die. Children become orphans and then they learn, but often not well, to fend for themselves and take care of their siblings however they can. This means they have no childhood.

The book is in two parts. The first is about the orphans of AIDS. Ashburn photographed seven, some of whom we show here. The sweetness of the orphans, and their often vacant, yet sometimes open stares hide the fear and uncertainty that govern their lives. Many of us in the West know what tomorrow might hold. For these orphans, tomorrow is probably a dark tunnel that offers no way into the light. These children do not deserve to suffer. No child does. These children who became orphans were born in the wrong place, yes, at the wrong time, something that is no fault of their own. Their days are spent trying to survive in an environment that offers little hope. The second part of the book is about how AIDS destroys all it touches throughout Southern Africa – parents, children, and, of course, whole communities.

© Kristen Ashburn
Luka (Kristen Ashburn)
The photos are powerful, often harsh, stark, and, in their reality, hard to forget. Though at times difficult to view, the photos are uncompromising. The horror in these pictures is strangely beautiful in the way we see the ravages of AIDS, and how the disease destroys people and places. Looking at the photos does not allow anyone to forget the ruin that AIDS brings because people are poor and cannot afford medicine or even enough food to keep body and spirit together. If anyone is looking for an even-tempered approach to AIDS, this book is not where they should land. Kristen Ashburn pulls no punches in her approach to the AIDS pandemic. She shows the people and how they suffer with a clear-sighted lens. She does this admirably and without fear. There can be no other way.

© Kristen Ashburn
Joseph Kachepa, 35, at the grave of his son Emanuel, 2, who died of AIDS. Both Joseph and his wife are HIV positive. Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe.
Kristen Ashburn says that these "children are forced to become adults before their time. They are the ones who go out to find food and shelter to keep them and their siblings alive. They look like children one finds anywhere. But many behave as adults. They have no choice. But kids are kids. They want to have a childhood like other kids. But that is not possible. These kids are robbed of what other kids have. But they are still just kids and they need our support."

The book has a foreward by Madonna who is active in helping to improve life in Southern Africa through her charity, Raising Malawi, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping orphans. Next year Madonna will release a new documentary film also called "I Am Because We Are." Based partly on the work of Kristen Ashburn the film has interviews with Bill Clinton and Bishop Desmond Tutu, among others. A final note: Author proceeds from the sale of Kristen Ashburn's book will go to Madonna's charity, Raising Malawi.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks at Ron Steinman's