Dispatch from Lilongwe, Malawi

David Snyder, a photojournalist, has worked in such crisis zones as Pakistan, Sudan, Angola, the West Bank, Lebanon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is currently traveling throughout southern Africa on behalf of CRS.

Working on the road, in foreign countries, can spin your head a bit sometimes. It’s an odd dynamic, I suppose. You spend most of each day running from project site to project site, talking to beneficiaries, taking photographs and heading off to the next site, which might be 10 minutes or four hours away. That’s the nature of the work.

Not that you don’t connect to people along the way, become inured to the often tragic stories you hear. But sometimes I find, as we all do I suppose, that the full impact of what you’ve seen and heard, of how you spent your day, doesn’t really catch up to you until later in the evening. I’ve been on the road now for nearly a month in three countries covering mostly HIV and AIDS programs for CRS. And that moment I spoke of — that moment where you sort of think back on the day — caught up with me here in Malawi.

Everyone has heard the statistics of AIDS in Africa. Malawi has not escaped those figures. In fact, the life expectancy in Malawi has dropped more than nine years in the last two decades. The average life expectancy in Malawi today is just 38 years. Nearly 15 percent of Malawi’s 12 million inhabitants are HIV-positive. Such is the story of AIDS in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

But in Malawi, the face of the pandemic is more personal, or has been for me at least. Statistics are hard to measure — I always think back to the famous quote attributed to Stalin that one death is a tragedy, 20 million deaths are a statistic. Numbers are impersonal. But here, the numbers are more personal.

78. 83.

Those are the numbers of orphan children I found in two villages we visited the other day. 78 orphans in a village of maybe 1500 people. 83 more left alone in the wake of the pandemic, which has left one in three of Malawi’s children under the age of 15 orphaned. One in three is a number that hits home a bit more closely. Look around you and count that out in your mind.

Such numbers have disrupted the pace of life in rural Africa, and certainly here in Malawi. Children learn from their parents. When those parents die, young, there are no teachers left, no guidance on the simple but critical lessons of how to plant and harvest, how to make enough money to pay for school and food and the few things that most in Africa depend upon for survival. Grandparents have stepped in — young parents again at a time in their lives when their children should be caring for them. But the net is stretched thin, as money to fight the war on AIDS flows to research on vaccinations, and antiretroviral medications which keep people alive. These are critical needs — but the orphans are left largely on their own.

CRS is reaching more than 9,000 orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi with food and other support — including both of the groups I saw the other day. I’ll be seeing many more such projects over the next few weeks of travel. But sometimes, even for me, the stories and the photos get a bit lost in the rush of the work it takes to gather them. It’s important to take a few minutes like this to remember them.

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