Teen with HIV dreams of becoming doctor
--how riding with a stranger changed Memory's life forever By Oluatoyin Alleyne
Stabroek News
December 20, 2006

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Memory Phiri shares her story with journalists at the Cresta Golf View Hotel, Lusaka, Zambia on Friday, December 1.

Almost six years ago a 13-year-old along with her older married sister accepted the offer of a ride home from a stranger.

Choosing the ride rather than waiting for hours for a bus or walking for miles to her home changed Memory's life forever. The kind stranger turned out to be a monster who raped the 13-year-old girl shortly after he had dropped her sister off at her marital home. The rape left her HIV positive.

Memory Phiri is now 19 years old but unlike many children in a similar plight in Zambia, her life took a turn for the better when she became a resident at the City of Hope in Makeni, a small village about 15 km outside Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. City of Hope is a project run by the Salesian Sisters of St John Bosco, for girls at risk and it aims to develop adequate social skills through various services. The home focuses on character development and seeks to improve the self-esteem of the girls while offering information, education, training and experience to be self-reliant.

Memory has become an AIDS activist and has travelled to many other countries sharing her story and bringing hope to infected persons.

She also shared her story with 35 journalists and editors who participated in the PEPFAR-sponsored 'Editorial Leadership in HIV and AIDS Reporting Changing Hearts, Minds and Behaviours' workshop held from November 26 to December 1 in Lusaka.

Memory said she lost both of her parents while very young, after which she and her siblings went to relatives to be taken care of. However, her older sister, who was just 14 at the time, was forced to get married while her eldest brother was fending for himself. Eventually all three of her brothers were living on the streets at one time or another.

Memory was taken in by a cousin, but was not allowed to attend school even though she begged to go. At that time she was living in what is known as the Copper Belt, where copper, one of major contributors to the country's economy, is mined. She recalled that her sister's husband had been very ill and was hospitalised and her sister had asked her to go along and visit her husband in the hospital.

That same day, Memory was raped. After the ordeal she was thrown out of the vehicle and had to make her own way home where she told her cousin of the incident. The next morning the cousin took her to her sister's home in an effort to ascertain whether her sister knew the man or his vehicle's licence number. But on arrival at her sister's home they learned that her brother-in-law had died. Memory's plight was pushed to the backburner. In the end a report was never made to the police and life went on.

It was Memory's quest to return to school that saw her move to the City of Hope where she was to have yet another life-changing experience. The City of Hope has each girl undergo a complete medical exam, which includes an HIV test. Memory tested HIV positive but was not told of her results immediately, because the Salesian Sisters were not sure how to deal with it. However, word somehow got around and some of the other girls in the home wrote things like "Memory has AIDS" on the toilet walls.

"At that time I just wanted to kill myself. Then I went to the sisters and I asked them if I was positive," the teenager said.

After her HIV positive status was confirmed and she received counselling, Memory took the bold step to become an advocate. She reasoned that her HIV status was already public knowledge in her school so there was no point in trying to hide it.

Her story was heard far and wide and some US donors were so moved by it that they asked her what she needed most. She told them she wanted a house so that her brothers who were on the streets could have somewhere to call home. The funding for the home was provided and today her family is together except for her older sister, who has since remarried.

Memory's dream is to enter the medical profession, she wants to study medicine, she said, so she can help people who are unable to help themselves.

800,000 orphans

Memory's story is not unique in Zambia, the AIDS pandemic has left over 800,000 orphans in that country and it is now a norm for 12-year-olds to be heads of households in that country.

One such 12-year-old is Rose Daka who is taking care of her 89-year-old grandmother. While Rose has a 17-year-old brother Cephas, he does not have the money to visit Lusaka from Petauke in the Eastern Province of Zambia.

The young girl is in the fourth grade and she and her grandmother, Naomi Mwale, have been together since her parents died almost a decade ago. Her grandmother started taking care of her when she was about two years old but now it is Rose who is caring for the elderly woman.

She spends her school day at the Bwafwano Community Home Based Care Organisation in the Chizanga Township outside Lusaka and returns home to take care of her grandmother. Their home is a one-room house provided by Habitat for Humanity.

Their income comes from a small garden where they grow pumpkins and maize and they also receive help from the Bwafano project in the form of 50-kg bags of maize. However, they have not receive this vital help since August and this has forced Rose to remain in school for lunch and later go home to cook, clean, sweep and tend to the garden. But that is not all.

Rose also gets money from doing "peace work", like fetching water and washing clothes for neighbours and she spends little time away from home after school with her friends as she places her grandmother's needs first and foremost.

"I don't want to go out because I need to make sure my grandmother receives the help she requires all the time," she told journalists who visited the Bwafwano clinic.

Like Memory she has big dreams and hopes one day to become a nurse because she wants, "€¦to help sick people". Next year she will leave the community school to attend a government school.

She is one of the lucky recipients of aid at the 'Helping One Another' which is what the name Bwafano means. The programme, which started ten years ago, serves around 70,000 citizens in Chizanga Township. It offers home-based care to community members infected and affected by HIV and AIDS and around 3,000 volunteers visit patients in their homes.

Bwafwano receives funding from USAID and the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) through Project Concern International.

While some children in Zambia become orphans others become vulnerable as a direct consequence of their parents' or their own illnesses as a result of AIDS.

PEPFAR works with the Zambian Government, UNICEF, bilateral donors, and faith-based and community organisations to help orphans and vulnerable children.