Goodbye, Africa: Reflections on a continent

Joyce Savai, shown in an undated photo, was the housekeeper for Shashank Bengali, the Africa correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, for many years. In June 2009 Savai died of complications of AIDS, one of more than 90,000 Kenyans who die from it each year. (Hayley Osborne/MCT)
Joyce Savai, shown in an undated photo, was the housekeeper for Shashank Bengali, the Africa correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, for many years. In June 2009 Savai died of complications of AIDS, one of more than 90,000 Kenyans who die from it each year. (Hayley Osborne/MCT) MCT

WASHINGTON — Before I left Africa, I paid one last visit to the house where Joyce had lived. I took some photographs I'd taken with her family and other stuff I was unloading as I emptied my apartment: a mattress and a couple of TVs for her mother, a few clothes and kitchen appliances for her husband and their two little boys.

Last June, Joyce, who was 30, had died of AIDS. She was one of more than 90,000 Kenyans who succumb to the disease every year, according to U.N. estimates. She'd been my housekeeper for four years, and losing her felt like losing a family member.

I thought a lot about Joyce during my final days in Kenya.

McClatchy had decided to shut its bureau in Nairobi, our only outpost in sub-Saharan Africa, to divert resources to a new bureau in Afghanistan, and I was coming back to the United States. With newspaper revenues declining and the war in South Asia escalating, the calculation was regrettable, but I understood it.

Yet as I packed up the office and said my farewells, I couldn't help but think that we were turning our backs on a continent that's always needed more media attention, not less. As I hugged Joyce's family one final time, remembering how she died so suddenly that I missed saying goodbye to her, I also thought that this was the kind of story we'd miss now, the ability to put a face on something as big as AIDS in Africa, which must seem to most Americans like an inexorable tsunami swallowing up millions of far-off strangers.

When I started my Africa tour in 2005, as a 25-year-old reporter on his first foreign assignment, I hoped to offer a different view of the continent: neither a dreamlike safari park nor a bleak otherworld of disease and disaster, but a place that Americans could recognize.

So while I chased the crises in Somalia and Congo, unending tragedies that needed telling, I also did my best to write about everyday life: bloggers, recreational drug use in Djibouti, Kenya's beer-drinking culture, Congo's first ATM. If people back home were going to care about Africa's future, I thought, they had to see Africans as people, not victims or statistics.

Soon after I moved to Kenya, I met slender, smiling Joyce, who'd just given birth to her second child. Perhaps because we were just months apart in age, and because she indulged my endless questions about a country I was impatient to understand, we became friends.

Whether I was too wrapped up in my work or simply too naive, I failed to see that her body was steadily being eaten away by HIV.

She was always thin, her brown eyes permanently deep-set, so that when she lost weight I barely noticed. She would miss work occasionally, saying only that she was ill and seeing a doctor. Days later she'd be back, seemingly no worse for wear.

Last April, while I was away on a monthlong reporting trip, Joyce became extremely sick, crippled by stomach pains and throwing up constantly. Tests showed that her liver was swollen, her kidneys were failing, her lymph nodes were badly inflamed and she had tuberculosis, a grim cocktail of ailments that strongly suggested HIV.

Joyce denied that she had the virus. I'd later learn that she and her husband had kept it a secret for years. Rather than confront the disease, they elected to do nothing, perhaps wishing it would just disappear like a bruise.

Since the 1990s, when HIV raced like a silent serial killer through towns and villages across Africa, infected people have been loath to reveal themselves, fearful of being shunned by their communities. Africa's epidemic, spread mainly through heterosexual sex, is shrouded in silence far more than it is in the United States.

Yet HIV no longer is a death sentence. Thanks to billions of dollars in grants from the U.S. government and other donors, the lifesaving drugs known as anti-retrovirals are available, free of charge, from clinics across the continent.

The old fears, however, remain difficult to overcome. Joyce often swiped my newspaper to read on the bus ride home, and I wonder now whether she ever thought of herself as she read the headlines touting free HIV treatment, or whether she lived in a self-imposed daze, unwilling to believe her own body.

Back in Kenya, I found myself yelling at her on the phone.

"Think of your sons," I said. "If you admit you're sick, we can help you."

"Yes," she said after a long pause, her voice seemingly drained of life. "I'm sick."

A few days later, I drove her to a clinic near my home, several miles from where she lived. She'd chosen this place because no one would recognize her. We sat wordlessly on a wooden bench as she bowed her head in pain, nearly touching it to the floor.

A nurse tested her CD4 cell count, a measure of how badly HIV has degraded the immune system. A CD4 count in a healthy adult would range from 700 to 1,000. Hers was 108.

I was to take her back the following Monday to start on anti-retrovirals, but that weekend she went into the hospital with a massive blood clot in her leg. The night before I left the country on a long-planned vacation, I stopped to check on her. She looked as frail and shrunken as women I'd met in Darfur refugee camps or Ethiopian feeding centers in times of drought.

It was the last time I saw her.

Until the very last, Joyce chose not to tell her family what she had, leaving her mother to say only, "She was very sick," or, "She had TB." After she died, I went with the family to the mortuary to see the body, a decision I regretted the moment the attendant pulled back the white sheet to reveal a wild, ghostly face I scarcely recognized.

How well, in fact, did I ever really know Joyce? She was smart and sweet, a devoted mother. How could she let this happen to herself?

Part of me was trying to rationalize. Despite all the stories I'd written about death in Africa, all the sweltering days and sleepless nights I'd logged in the continent's disaster zones, I'd simply failed to notice the calamity unfolding under my own roof.

Surely a young woman who worked for an American journalist — someone who'd written about AIDS, someone trained to observe — should have stood a better chance than the average Kenyan.

This is guilt that I can't shake, and telling her story provides only some measure of catharsis.

It wasn't for me to pry into how she got the virus so many years earlier or how her husband, Evans, had managed not to contract it from her. (He remains HIV-free.) After her death, when both their boys tested HIV-positive as well, all but certainly infected by their mother, my heart fell.

Thankfully, there is a happy ending to this story. We got the boys to a wonderful pediatric health-outreach center in Nairobi called Lea Toto, which is sponsored in part by the U.S. government, and where they now receive regular checkups.

Sweet, round-faced Owen, 4, had a very low CD4 count and started on anti-retrovirals right away. (He was often sick, and I thought we'd discovered the culprit.) His big brother, Blair, an impish 8-year-old, is healthier but is being monitored.

Their grandmother, Joyce's mom, nearly collapsed in tears in my kitchen the day a friend and I screwed up the courage to tell her about the boys, but she's fought through a mess of emotions to take charge of their health.

In their own way, the family members are finally confronting a disease that cost them one loved one but that they've decided need not cost them another.

The day I last saw the boys, on a warm November afternoon in their one-room home, where they were fighting playfully over a toy car, both looked happier than I'd ever seen them. Kids are so resilient. Owen was asking whether he should call Evans's sister, who'd become their guardian, "Mama."

Suddenly, I didn't want to leave Africa.

McClatchy, however, isn't the only news organization that's been forced to withdraw from the continent. Tribune Co., the parent of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, has gone from three reporters in sub-Saharan Africa down to one. The Washington Post recently closed its bureau in South Africa, leaving only a correspondent in Kenya.

This doesn't mean the end of news from Africa; far from it. There are legions of freelance journalists, bloggers, relief workers and experts — African and expatriate alike — who continue to report, post and Tweet from the continent. They form a vibrant community, even if their insights don't often trickle into the mainstream.

Yet for now, at least, American newspapers have decided that there will be less independent, professional journalism coming out of Africa. Economics don't support it, and perhaps only some readers will really miss it.

The truth, however, is that this comes at a cost for Americans' understanding.

Africa will continue to seem like a very faraway place. Its problems will remain esoteric. A story such as Joyce's, for most of us, also will continue to represent merely another grim statistic of a cursed continent, rather than what it was for me: the loss of a friend whom I wish I'd known better.


Lea Toto's Web site


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