TANZANIA. American writer Miriam Beard once remarked that “travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on deep and permanent in the ideas of living.” I recently traveled to a world that not only altered my assumptions and expectations of life, it left me with pictures whose indelible imprint has shaped my values and sense of life priorities in a manner no other experience has.
On a hot and dusty June day, I arrived in Tanzania with a group of students and teachers from my international school, anxious to visit the many service projects we sponsor in the various towns and cities. And while I was immediately struck with the vast natural beauty of this African country – the magnificence of the landscape, the splendor of wildlife, the sincere kindness of the people – I was also deeply disturbed by Tanzania’s poverty and the overwhelming signs of the ravages of AIDS. One experience in particular, a visit to the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre AIDS clinic for children, resonated with me to such an extent that I retain the pictures of that day with such a clarity in my mind to always remind me of their import.
The KCMC AIDS clinic borders several wild sunflower fields and is located just outside the town of Moshi. On the day of our visit, the sun shone down on the ruptured streets whilst the bright sunflowers swayed in the wind. We pulled up to the clinic in our mud-caked truck and disembarked in silence, as if already anticipating the tragic world we were about to enter.
Bare hospital corridors were packed with grief-stricken relatives and patients, desperately waiting to be attended to. Upon entering one of the spare rooms, my eyes caught sight of Aina, a girl of about six, who lay frozen in bed, staring at me with her large brown eyes. A glimpse at her oversized head made me feel utterly paralysed; Aina was suffering from a hydrocephaly that could not be treated adequately because of a lack of money for the medications. While her eyes continued to gaze at me; I longed to close mine, hoping AIDS would remain a nightmare, and not become a reality. However, this minute passed and I still remained standing at Aina’s bedside. While the gruesome, ghastly threat of AIDS continued to hover over us, my eyes gradually shifted to Jessica, a nine-year old girl clasping a torn stuffed animal in despair. Although her multicoloured sweater attempted to conceal the ravaging symptoms of skin cancer, bloody sores that had been scratched open remained undisguised in her face and on her skeletal arms.
A distressed nurse informed me that the time had come to leave Aina’s and Jessica’s room. But before I could, I caught sight of another victim. An infected baby lay motionless in a crib near Jessica’s bed. Like Jessica, this infant had blood-spattered sores on its emaciated skin and I assumed that she, too, was suffering from the devastating effects of skin cancer. She seemed to be sleeping peacefully and I left the room. Later, I was told that the baby was in fact already dead and that the corpse was to be buried the same day.
We arrived back in Munich Strauss airport – all glass, marble and steel; a temple to architectural progress and Western prosperity. Clean. Efficient. German. And yet, it felt foreign. Too clean. Too efficient. And I had become too aware of the inequality and particularly the disparity of wealth that defines our world and inevitably shapes the chances we are offered in life.