I met Thomas in early 2012, shortly after we arrived in Tanzania. The town of Musoma is where we went to language school, and it’s also the town where fellow missioner Liz Mach and Maryknoll Sister Marion Hughes live. Every two weeks, a group of HIV+ children (called Lisa’s Pride) gather at Sr. Marion’s house to play games, to do a weigh-in, and to receive basic food stuffs that helps keep their immune systems strong. While we lived in Musoma, we would try to make it out to as many sessions as we could, and that’s where we met Thomas.
First of all, Thomas was charming. He had a great smile. He was smart and quick to laugh. And he was a little dude. I thought he was 9 or 10 at first, but when you spoke with him, he seemed older. That’s because he was; his health issues had stunted his growth and kept him at a size very small relative to his age. He was a teenager and must have been 15 or 16 by now.
As should be obvious by his membership in Lisa’s Pride, Thomas was HIV+. I don’t know the story of how he was infected. He was also deaf, but he wasn’t born that way. When he was younger, he got malaria and received an overdose of his medication and lost his hearing as a result. Yet, he could still hear a little so he could hold a conversation with you- in Swahili or in English. And he could read lips- in Swahili or in English. I told you, he was smart.
After 3 months, we moved down to Mwanza, but for our first Christmas in Tanzania, we went back up to Musoma to spend a few days with Liz and Sr. Marion. We also went to assist with a big shopping trip where the kids from Lisa’s Pride got to pick out clothes for themselves. It was a lot of fun, and Thomas was around, of course. The day of the shopping trip was also my 36th birthday, so Katie baked me a cake. Thomas helped her light the candles, and then he brought the cake out to me as everyone sang “Happy Birthday.”
Sadly, that was the last time I saw him. We haven’t been up to Musoma in a year and a half. But I always asked about him, and I hear that he would still ask about me from time to time. I know Thomas liked me a lot, but I won’t say I had a particularly special relationship with him, because he liked everybody. But clearly, Thomas had a special place in my heart.
I’m not sure what happened, but he had evidently been sick for a while and had been in and out of the hospital. He was recently released because he was doing really well…and then he died. That’s what HIV/AIDS does: weakens your immune system until some secondary infection gets you.
I feel like I should take this opportunity to rally support for AIDS research and funding for ARVs, but I’m not sure what to say at this moment. We should take a “big picture” approach to tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but today I’m taking the “small view.” I’m just mourning the death of a child…my friend, Thomas.