Thursday, June 19, 2014

In Memory of Thomas

Earlier today, I received a phone call with some bad news. Thomas, a boy I knew up in Musoma, had succumbed to illness and died earlier this morning.

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. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Day of the African Child

Every year, on June 16th, the world celebrates the Day of the African Child.

Today, I had a sobering experience to mark the day. I visited the office of Friends of Children with Cancer (FOCC) at Bugando Medical Centre here in Mwanza, Tanzania. The director, Walter Miya, is a friend of mine. At the end of our two hour meeting, he gave me a tour of the oncology ward. He took me to the bedside of each of the little kids there receiving treatment for cancer. It was a sad experience to be sure, but it's also a blessing that these children are getting treatment and assistance.

Let's be real: a lot of these kids won't make it. But at least they have the chance to try. And a lot of these kids WILL make it, and that's a reason to celebrate right there.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Shout Out to a Friend

I want to brag for a minute, but not about myself. I want to take a moment and talk about Aden Mabruk, my Somali Bantu friend from Columbia. I’ve written about him numerous times over the years, as he was a big part of my years living in Columbia, SC.

I first met him back in 2005 when I volunteered to tutor him once a week while he was a student at Dent Middle School. He was a quiet, intense, kinda surly 14-year-old refugee kid who was so focused on his school work that he would hardly look me in the eye or make any semblance of small talk. Over time, that facade slowly but surely dropped and we began to spend hours together each week discussing school work and any other questions he had on his mind. Eventually, due to numerous factors, my involvement within the Columbia Somali Bantu community expanded to include some degree of connection to almost every Somali Bantu family in the city. But Aden always remained my core connection, along with his friends Hassan, Abdi, Mohammed, and Omar (AKA “Motormouth, who's done quite well for himself, as well!)

Eventually, once Aden and his crew made it to high school, our time spent with each other dwindled. Aden got involved with sports, made a bunch of friends (and got very popular), and got involved with extracurricular activities. By his junior year, he was super busy, and he eventually ended our tutoring sessions. It was bittersweet to me; I was super proud of how far he and his friends had come, but I felt a real loss. He didn’t need me anymore! 
But once he graduated high school, he got a car and come over to just hang out at my house, and that was a fun new aspect to our friendship. He and his crew spent many nights sitting around a fire in my backyard chatting up my friends and neighbors (and trying to teach them the most bullshit card game I’ve ever witnessed, a game that I thought was totally made up by the Somalis solely to mess with Americans until my friend Fiona managed to actually sorta learn it one night and I had to concede there may actually be rules). He also took some ESL classes at USC in the building where I worked and he joined the PANASA group I helped start, so I would see him around campus.

Anyway, the kid meant a lot to me, and still does, though since we moved to Tanzania our communication has really dropped off. Despite our best efforts, I didn’t even manage to see him when I was in the States this February. I wasn’t really sure what he was up to these days. And then THIS showed up on his facebook wall the other day:

“To friends in the U.S and outside of U.S I'm really sorry that i have been difficult to reach these few months. I and my brother Tariq Sabreer have been working big project starting our own business. Allhumalallah finally we did it. I'm honored to be a partner with such talent person. We are the owners of the new restaurant in town and its name is Feel Goods Restaurant & Grill, previously know as Nick and Gyro. Yesterday was our first day and we started great. This year has been very successful year indeed. I have been accepted USC Engineering school, its education school and start my our business. I’m happy. I would like Thank my Mother Hawa Haji Mohamed, My bother Hussein Mabruk and my American family (Vickie Westbrook and Spears Westbrook) for their support. So friends come out support us.”
Wha??! He's starting a restaurant while simultaneously starting Engineering school?!! I’ll be honest, I have a hard time wrapping my head around this! I’m not SURPRISED, because he’s one of the most driven, motivated people I’ve ever met. But where did that surly little kid who only wanted to do math problems and would never smile go? Where’d this twenty-something entrepreneur come from? And where'd that beard come from?!

Needless to say that I am super proud of this guy, and I’m proud of the role I’ve had in his life. I’m certainly not the only person that played a role in his time in the States; he’s had tremendous support over the years from a variety of people that could all see his potential. I think we can all pat ourselves on the back for what we’ve done for him, but the true accolades go to Aden himself for all his hard work that’s gotten him to where he is today. I wish him the best of luck and look forward to seeing where he’ll end up next.