Through the magic of email I received the draft of an article by Noeleen
Heyzer, director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, litanizing
what it takes to care for a single AIDS patient in rural Zimbabwe. The
message is a clarion call intended to coincide with the conference on AIDS
being held this month in Barcelona. The essential message was daunting,
stupefying and pointed fingers at all the civilized world for withholding
medicines and even simple running water, further exacerbating the impoverished economics of the sufferers. But beyond those facts was a simple
truth; when one women was asked what it took to care for an AIDS patient on a
daily basis she calmly replied 24 buckets of water.
This is not 24 light plastic buckets that are filled from a faucet in the
bathroom; getting water is a physical commitment. Often a well is not any
closer than an long walk from the house. Water is a rare commodity in many
parts of Africa and most often it is the women who, in our vernacular,
schlep for it.
Sometimes in summer when the wash from American children who can not abide
being dirty or sweaty from camp cloths or spilled ice cream reaches a
critical state, I get testy. Why is there so much wash, why are there so many
showers, why are the lights left on and the air conditioner turned up to
freezer level so we can live our normal insulated lives? I complain about the
too much quality of my life as a woman balancing work with the care and joys
of a home, but I am stopped in my tracks by the shockingly simple truth that
it takes my counter part in Zimbabwe 24 buckets of hard won water to care
poorly for an AIDES patient in her country.
I have lived in Africa. I spent time in countries where streets in a capital
city have no street signage because only ten percent of the population is
literate, so why waste time with signs. I have witnessed poverty and learned
the techniques that allow some of us from the very first world to live or
spend time in the most heinous conditions in the rural world. We have to
become inured somewhat to the terror or else we could not work and function.
We would weep and watch. So one learns to move through what you see and focus
on the small tasks at hand.
Seventeen summers ago I was pregnant with my first child, and caring for my
first friend to die of AIDS. As I grew more rotund with my daughter, my sweet
Greg withered. We knew so little of AIDS then. The hospital rooms were marked
with a logo resembling a nuclear attack site and care givers were encouraged
to wear protective garb. Somehow I felt divinely protected and so did nothing
more than visit constantly wearing big, loose cotton dresses and carrying food. I made custards, pies, casserole and spooned in tiny portions. I rubbed
his feet, the only part where there was enough meat left not to be annoyed by
touching. I did so little and in such modern circumstances and still I felt
depleted by every visit and by all the crazy machinations I concocted in my
head regarding a means to save my dearest friend, the man who was to be my
And no now years later we know how the disease has spread, we have some
methods to slows its growth, it is no longer a secret but a dirty shame on
all our lips. Still the means to care for and cure seem eons away.
I imagine the woman carrying water at day break does not jump start a chart
that ticks off one bucket and keeps a count until around midnight she
collapses on her mat finished for the day with bucket 24. Often she will be
roused in the middle of the night to serve some need with the howls of
fearful animals echoing in the background. No well at that hour.
To honor and support all the work that woman do in fighting this crisis is my
only choice today. To remember my friend as his summer birthday rolls around
is a bittersweet joy. And to be mindful, deeply mindful of the water I drew
for this coffee, the faucet that flowed to wash my hands and the two loads of
wash that lie folded on my clean kitchen table is to celebrate a daily life,
sadly beyond many women’s imaginings.
July 10, 2002