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Angels in the Dust: A Glimmer of Hope in HIV/AIDS Epidemic

by Jessica Mosby
USA

100 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa will have been infected with HIV/AIDS by the year 2010. Another 26 million children will be orphaned by the virus. The idea that two ordinary people could affect, much less save, the lives of hundreds of children dying of HIV/AIDS in Africa seems naively idealistic. For many of us, myself included, our main contribution to the epidemic in Africa is buying a Red iPod.

If you’re like me and have ever doubted your ability to cause real change, go see Angels in the Dust. The documentary film, which is currently playing nationwide, chronicles the work of Marion and Con Cloete, an inspiring couple who left their posh life in Johannesburg to start Boikarabelo, an orphanage and school for South African children. A film about children dying and orphaned by AIDS hardly seems like an enjoyable way to spend 95 minutes, but to the film’s credit the experience is more than just sob stories and tears.

What really resonates is the ability of the children, even those that are HIV-positive, to still have hope while living in a country that isn’t exactly blazing any trails in its response to the virus. There are countless scenes of kids dancing, singing, chasing chickens, and having fun. The Cloetes have not only built a safe haven for children to live, they have created a future for hundreds of children that would otherwise be dead or living in extreme poverty.

In the village surrounding Boikarabelo, 50 percent of the population is HIV-positive. The myth that men who sleep with a virgin will be cured of AIDS has led to the rape and prostitution of young girls, thereby perpetuating the spread of the virus; desperate parents often prostitute their own daughters. Marion has no sympathy for these parents and tells them to their faces that no level of desperation justifies their behavior. While going house to house in the village to recruit children for their school, Marion tries to persuade parents who she knows are prostituting their daughters, to let their children come live at the orphanage during the week so they can attend school. Maki, a teenage girl who had become a prostitute amongst her extended family, is only allowed to go with Marion if she takes her baby brother with her. Of course, the Cloetes can never say no to someone in need, so both siblings take up residence at Boikarabelo.

Marion is a true rabble-rouser who protested apartheid until Con, concerned for her safety, convinced her to have children. Once a mother, the self-described communist realized she needed a safer way to change the world; she and Con later decided to start the Boikarabelo. Marion began doing outreach and therapy and Con oversaw the finances. Their twin daughters later decided to come live and work with them. Even though they have completely devoted their lives to their cause and abandoned any hope of personal financial gain, the Cloetes are not self-righteous. While visiting a friend’s gated compound in Johannesburg, Marion reminisces about their past life, one that included living in a large house and driving new cars. But Con doesn’t seem concerned with the material goods from their previous existence; he just misses having his own indoor bathroom. Later, while Marion is using the outhouse, a group of children wait outside yelling her name and you understand why they miss having a little privacy.

A seemingly idyllic life of gardening and karate classes is a stark contrast to the children’s lives before Boikarabelo. A young boy named Tami lost his entire family and was reduced to begging for food with his sister. During an interview he says he rarely ate because he would give any scraps of food he found to his sister. Tragically, after coming to the orphanage, Tami’s sister died of AIDS. Without an education or financial resources, these young children are resigned to begging and prostitution as their only means of survival. Attending classes at Boikarabelo is the only chance these children have to improve their lives; sadly, most of their families, if they’re still living, are uneducated themselves and don’t see the value of school when the children could be working at home. What is to come of entire generation of uneducated orphaned children?

Standing in a makeshift graveyard that is almost full to capacity, a minister laments that in 20 years no one will be left; scenes like this one make the HIV/AIDS epidemic seem so overwhelming. How can there be hope when people attend three funerals a day? But Marion asks each of the AIDS patients if they have the will to live before she takes them to the hospital to receive life-prolonging medicine. Some simply don’t want to live anymore and she lets them die in peace. For those who want to live, her intervention goes beyond medicine. Marion created a local buddy system wherein healthier patients visit the homes of their weaker counterparts. This helps ensure that everyone takes their medication and has the basic necessities. It also provides the necessary emotional outlet for people who know they’re down for the count. Betty, who works at Boikarabelo and contracted AIDS from her boyfriend, is very brave throughout most of the film, even telling the other patients that it’s better for the adults, like her, to have AIDS if it means the babies, who wouldn’t live to see their first birthdays with the virus, are spared. A moment after her words resonate with the women onscreen and the film’s audience, Betty breaks down and cries, realizing that her life, along with many of her friends, may soon end.

What makes the Cloetes so endearing is the time they take to talk to the children individually and their sensitivity to taking their grief seriously. Marion, a university-educated therapist, spends countless hours crying along with children who have recently lost parents, talking to HIV-positive children about their fears, and genuinely making sure everyone is okay. Lillian, who will invariably steal the heart of everyone who sees this film, was raped at a very young age in her mother’s home. After coming to live at Boikarabelo, Lillian was plagued by nightmares and flashbacks. Unlike her mother, who refuses to acknowledge the incident, Marion assures Lillian that she believes her; she helps her overcome her nightmares by letting her sleep close by and then, hot cup of coffee in hand, wakes her up in the middle of her terrifying dreams. All of the kids, for their part, are very kind to one another. When a new person arrives at the orphanage, everyone sings a song to help this new friend feel welcome.

Race is a very sensitive subject, especially when discussing HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, even the most politically correct filmgoer cannot help but notice that the Cloetes are the only non-blacks onscreen. Sadly HIV/AIDS is the new apartheid. According to UNAIDS, 5.5 million of South Africans are HIV-positive, and most of the 1,500 to 1,800 people diagnosed every day are blacks living in poverty. The government has been slow in its response to endorse and distribute antiretroviral therapy; rather, President Thabo Mbeki has officially stated that until medical treatment can be available to everyone, it should be given to no one. To the determinate of his citizens, Mbeki believes that AZT drugs are not safe for regular use and has refused to fund treatment programs for pregnant women, rape victims, and hospital staff who have been exposed to the virus – this from a person who has questioned whether HIV actually causes AIDS or not.

The world seems woefully short on effective solutions to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, especially in the countries where the virus doesn’t make the government’s foremost priority list. The Western world can throw all the fundraisers it wants and donate millions of dollars worth of medicine, but unless those resources are spent on preventing the spread of the virus while simultaneously helping its victims in the most vulnerable parts of the world, AIDS will win. The movement needs to look to places like Boikarabelo as a model of how medical care, education, and devoted individuals can make a real difference.

The only truly disappointing part of the film is the opening National Geographic style footage – complete with an anecdote about orphaned elephants; a group field trip to the Pilanesberg National Park to visit the elephants neatly ends the film. Why director Louise Hogarth decided to bookend the film with such an obvious parallel to the children’s lives is unfortunate, especially considering the film’s powerful content. But despite this weakness, the gravity of the film loses no weight, even in the face of the most ridiculous developments. A sad irony washed over me while watching Marion visit the home of a woman who had not left her house since her husband’s death the month before because tradition mandates that a woman literally cannot move on with her life until her spouse is buried. Unable to afford burial costs, the woman had no choice to but to leave her husband in refrigeration, which is billed by the day. Marion decides that the woman must leave her house, so she and Con promise to pay the funeral bill – even though they’re still paying off the debt from two previous funerals. After arriving at Martians “Funerals You Can Afford” Funeral Home, Marion and Con are informed that their last check bounced. After some negotiating, a casket is purchased on credit and then loaded into the back of the Cloetes truck, destined for an already over-crowded cemetery.

If we cannot even afford the funerals, how many more lives can the world afford to lose to AIDS?

To learn more about how you can help the Cloetes, visit the Boikarabelo website – Ed.

About the Author

Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she’s not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.

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