I walked slowly into the darkness of the building that epitomized South Africa’s pain. Instantly, I was overpowered by the stench of human waste and disease. Decaying walls loomed on every side and as I squinted in the light, Nakakele AIDS Orphanage was exposed to me in all its horror. This was the place that the abandoned, the dying and the unloved were brought to face the torment of AIDS. I had come here to volunteer for part of my summer not really knowing what to expect, but I couldn’t possibly have repared myself for the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that pierced my heart when I entered.
The weary nurses, hardened to the suffering and too busy to bother with a naive white girl, let me roam wherever I wanted. I wandered into the children’s ward, where I found 50 kids between the ages of two and 12 lying in barred cots that looked like prison cells. As I gazed into each child’s anxious face, my heart wept. I found hatred and fear glaring back. Their eyes asked the questions they were forced to live with: Why did my parents leave me here to die with strangers who don’t even care? I couldn’t help but wonder what love could be in such a place of isolation.
A three-year-old with a beautiful face and a faded pink dress caught my eye. I swept her up into my arms and embraced her tightly. Gently, I kissed her soft cheek and smiled into her eyes as tears slid down my face. Compassion and love seemed to carry me across the floor as I danced with her and sang a Frank Sinatra song in a hoarse whisper. No matter how my heart was breaking for these children, I couldn’t stop smiling and soon, a smile spread to my dance partner. Injustice and pain melted as her laughter became the melody to which we danced. The previously dull eyes of the other children were now glued in curiosity on the newcomer. Singing as loudly as I could, I danced from cot to cot doing whatever was necessary to squeeze a giggle from each child.
Some of the more mischievous boys would make faces and then turn away, laughing in embarrassment. Others reached to touch my yellow hair and squirmed for me to pick them up. Like a starving man reaches for food, they reached for love. The simplest game became an escape from their prison cots. The more we played, the more the unforgettable - death - was forgotten. Their hardened faces were softened with laughter as I taught them songs I sang at church and poured out unrestrained love. Something deep inside me was changing. These children were teaching me a new kind of love - a pure, simple and selfless love.
When I entered that room and walked from child to child, I had seen their wounds, their hatred, their sickness. When I left Nakakele and walked from beautiful face to beautiful face, I saw the vibrant personalities and strength of children I had come to love in the truest way. Their eyes had once been empty; now they held laughter, mischief and love. The reek I had once found unbearable had become the perfume of joy.
Something new had pierced through the darkness and grime of fear - love. Like inescapable sunshine, it had lit up every face and transformed a moment of those lives. That summer I learned something I will never forget. In the smiles of those children, I learned the simplicity of love, and in the deaths of those children, I learned how to live. Their joy in the effortless acts of love reminded me of a verse I had always assumed I understood: Jesus loved the little children. Now I know what it is to love the little children.
But those innocent children, bodies broken by disease, are only a precious few that will represent in my heart forever the 25 million who have died of AIDS and the 40 million more who are infected. Picture a child you know - silly or maybe shy, bubbly and playful - and over that happy picture paint the black horror of AIDS and imagine their life being stolen day by day in the most brutal way. That is what is happening across Africa as the priceless purity of children is stolen with pain, hatred, death. How can we not love the little children? How can we turn away and ignore the ache in their eyes and the silent pleas of infants?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.