The HIV children: an introduction

Today was a very exciting day because Theresa took me to meet the HIV children! There are two groups of children here at SRH: the leprosy children and the HIV children. The leprosy children are all completely healthy and live here on the compound with their families. One or both of their parents is categorized as a “class II disabled” (paralyzed limb, severe disfigurement etc), and would have difficulty living a dignified life on the “outside.” The community here provides the family with housing, work, and schooling for the children. These families are welcome to live here forever, if they so desire. The leprosy kids are really fun, and are always romping around all over the place (see “Pongal”).

The HIV children, on the other hand, are pretty self contained. All of these children contracted HIV at birth, and have lots their parents to AIDS. Many of the children were brought to Sivananda straight from their parents’ (usually the mother’s) deathbeds. Some of them were pulled of the streets.

They are secluded from the leprosy children and the majority of the community because they are very susceptible to outside infection. Additionally, they are all orphans and don’t have any family that could or was willing, to take them in. They don’t get many visitors.There are 30 orphans total: 17 girls and 13 boys, but SRH recently got a grant to increase that number to 50. They are building a brand new boys home next to the existing home.

The children’s home is all inclusive. It is a large rectangle with bedrooms arranged around a the perimeter of a courtyard on the first floor. (So even if you are inside the building, you look up and see the sky.) Additionally, the first floor contains medical examining rooms where the children see their doctor, Dr. Sugena, every day. They also see a psychologist once a week, and the SRH dentist once each month. They have three women who care for them, and a teacher. All of the caretakers are also HIV positive patients.

The second floor contains the kitchen, the eating space, a recreation area and the classroom. The children that are below 4th grade are taught by a teacher on the compound. Above 4th grade the children go to public school. One of the girls, who is 15, will be starting college in the fall (you start college after the completion of 10th grade in India). Each child has a school uniform, a set of play clothes, a set of pajamas, and a pair of shoes.

Outside the building the children have their own play area with two swings, a slide, and one of those merry-go-rounds that makes me a little nauseous.

When I got to the home, all of the children ran out of their rooms and stared at me, whispering quietly in Telugu. I stared back, taking in the gravity of their little lives. Most of them are pretty young. The youngest is 4, the oldest girl as I mentioned is 15 and the age distribution is pretty stable between those two ages. It was quiet for a minute until one brave girl stepped forward and said, “name?”

I introduced myself, “gina!”

“Thanmy” she answered.

All of the children chorused “Hello gina” and I said,

“Hey, do you guys like games?”

We played goats and tigers, which is a game the leprosy children taught me. Its basically like playing tag, except if you are a goat, and get tagged by a tiger, you have officially been eaten—and you are out. The game goes on until the last goat standing becomes the next round’s tiger. Its really convenient to play inside the building because there are clear boundaries in the courtyard, and everyone plays together really well. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun (…probably Pongal).

These children are absolutely amazing. I am so excited for all my new little friends.

Wednesday January 14: Happy Pongal!

Today I had the day off in honor of “Pongal,” which is the Telugu New Year. When I went over to the kitchen this morning I was really surprised to see all of the girls, and some of the patients (including my little buddy and his mom) painting the concrete outside the ward. The style is called “Rangoli” and it’s a cross between sidewalk chalk and finger painting. It’s a traditional art form of floor painting, characterized by bright colors and geometric symmetry. We used white chalk but apparently you can use chalk powder as well (but that strikes me as more difficult to work with). You start by drawing little dots equally spaced apart in a square (as if you were going to play that “complete the box” game). Then this dot pattern acts as the template which is used to make a design that is usually repeated throughout the drawing. We drew in a picture of flowers with the chalk, and then Larshmi took colored rice powders and added a few drops of water to make runny paint. We used the paint to color in our drawings. Then they asked me to write “Welcome Happy Pongal” at the entrance in English, and we colored that in as well. When we were finished, it looked really pretty.

Throughout the process (and entire afternoon) my little buddy was running around taking pictures. I showed him how to use my camera yesterday, and he is quite the photographer. I’ll post the pictures for you to enjoy, but he gets all the photo credit. Its kind of fun to see things from his perspective a little bit.

After Rangoli we had some breakfast, which was a little more special than usual. Sunita is out of town visiting her son, Bittu, in northern Andhra, so Larshmi and Marta made us dosa! We usually only have dosa on Sundays because its more work intensive than just rice or dal (another grain, kind of like couscous). Dosa is the only thing I’ve had to eat here that has any sort of leavening. They don’t use yeast, I’m actually not sure what they use, but something in dosa is fermented. The resulting food is a lot like a pancake. I feel like we could make some amazing progress with a little bit of baking powder, but Sunita, Larshmi and Marta have a system, and I haven’t the faintest idea where to get groceries anyways.

After breakfast I went back to my room to get some books and ran into Theresa. She was going out to the market to buy some fruit for Dr. Beine (Theresa is the personal cook for our head surgeon. Dr. Beine is from Germany and I hear tons of stories about how amazing he is, how many people he has helped etc. He is also father Beine and I go to mass with him and Theresa and the pink nuns every Sunday. I recognize that he is amazing and all, but he’s also very German: extremely loyal, very tough, and not the warmest guy around.) Anyways, Theresa asked me if I wanted to go with her, and I was so excited! To date, I haven’t left campus except at 5am for church, which is in a car. Outside SRH, I’m a little bit afraid of India. The traffic is nonstop, the streets are crowded and dirty, and the whole thing is a bit overwhelming. I managing my little microcosm very well, but big India is a whole new adventure. I was ready to see some more.

So we went out and crossed the 8 lanes of traffic. Theresa held my hand as we crossed the street. Big buses overflowing with passengers whizzed by us, and people yelled out the window at me “hey look! An American!” (I mean, that’s what I decided they were yelling since I don’t speak any Telugu). We passed carts selling mangoes, oranges, and bananas. Theresa asked one vendor how much for his oranges, and he said 10 rupees for 5 oranges (one rupee is roughly 2 American cents, so 50 rupees = $1 more or less). Theresa snapped at him in Telugu and we walked away. I said, “what gives?” and she told me that the vendor was trying to over charge her. Seriously?

The shops resemble garages. They are small and one room, with a door on the front that lifts up when the store is open. You don’t really go inside, you just stand and talk to the vendor (well, Theresa does, I kind of gawked) and he brings you what you need. The shops are not well lit, they are hot, and there are a lot flies. I’m thankful that Sunita prepares all my food, because I wouldn’t have the faintest idea of where to buy safe groceries. Plus she does a really good job taking care of my meals, so although they are really spicy, I haven’t gotten sick at all. At the shop I asked for a little box of cookies, but when I flipped them over I saw dust and string inside the packaging. The lack of FDA in India is pretty disconcerting.

We passed a stand where a young man (about 16) was selling kites. Kites! Kite flying is the thing to do on Pongal, but I didn’t have one so this was very exciting. I asked him “how much,” 2 rupees each, and 5 rupees for string. So I bought twenty kites, and eight rolls of string. Theresa almost had a heart attack that I spent 80 rupees on something as silly as kites, but I explained the cultural importance of kites to Theresa (“everyone else is flying kites!”) and was just thrilled with my purchase. I mean, thrilled. My American-ness cracks Theresa up. Her Indian-ness does the same for me. She is convinced that people are always ripping me off because I’m American. I tell her that I’m willing to be overcharged.

We got back to campus and I was so excited to find the leprosy children. When they saw me coming with an armload of brightly colored kites they came running “auntie, auntie!” I got my little buddy a red kite, but he chose one that was pink, white and blue because he wanted his mother to see all three colors. My kite was pink. The children and I spent the rest of the afternoon in total Pongal chaos while the nurses and patients watched and laughed. We flew kites, chased escaping kites, and climbed trees to rescue kites. Everyday I wear a button down blouse and long skirt to try and match Indian propriety (no visible legs or shoulders, but bare midriffs are okay). It works at the office, but its really not conducive to climbing trees.

At one point I was running after a lose kite flying overhead with one of the little girls, when everyone started yelling at me in Telugu. I thought they were yelling encouraging things like “get it! Its going that way!” Turns out they were yelling “watch out!” I screamed as I almost fell on top of a pig that was sleeping in the bushes. Until that point I didn’t even know we had pigs. Big ugly pigs. Oops. The pig oinked at me and ran away. All the adults thought it was hilarious, and made little pig noises at me the rest of the afternoon. It was pretty funny.

After we wore ourselves out flying kites, the children had to go home. Little buddy and I sat around kicking stones with nothing to do, when I decided we should watch a movie! I went back to my room and got my laptop and DVDs and we set up shop in the HIV ward. We had dinner (you guessed it: rice and curry!) and then watched WallE with the HIV patients. They really liked the 5 minute Presto cartoon that precedes the movie. I thought WallE was a good pick because there are no words, but they didn’t quite get it. Everyone seemed to like it, I think on the basis that it is so visually impressive. Plus, India television leaves a lot to be desired.

Overall I’d say it was a very happy Pongal!

lots of love,

g

LtR patient, Larshmi, gina, patient, Shobba
LtR patient, Larshmi, gina, patient, Shobba