James sitting in the TASO Mbale truck in June 2007.
It wasn’t the kind of email I expected or wanted this morning. I don’t think I’ll ever rid my mind of the image of my Yahoo~Mail inbox and the subject line stating simply, James is dead.
Sweet James. Only 6 years old and the youngest of six children living alone in the rural landscape of Uganda with no parents, and too often, no food. Sweet James. I remember when I met James back in 2006; he contracted HIV from his mother at birth and was at TASO Mbale for a routine checkup. He was clinging to the leg of his oldest brother, Charles, also his mother and father since the death of their parents. James became my buddy that day and he loved my camera. He also laughed at my weird, deep voice and foreign accent. Charles humbly accepted compliments regarding his superhuman courage to assume such major responsibility at such a young age. That night I cried for hours trying to write a blog entry about James and his brothers. Their loss and suffering eluded me. I’ve always known comfort. I have never gone to bed hungry or slept on a dirt floor or walked to the hospital or walked a mile to get water or watched my parents die. I wrote something anyway, I wrote something from my heart. It was important to let people know what life is like for the millions of children affected by HIV/AIDS. That blog entry sparked a flood of compassion and goodwill flowing from friends and family back home, and their friends and family, and even people in Mbale, Uganda…all signing up to help in some way. Money, prayers, gifts, and love poured in to help James and his brothers.
James’ story even reached all the way to Kampala, prompting the Executive Director of TASO to travel to James’ home. During that visit, a US citizen pledged to support the family by hiring a full-time nanny/maid for them. Another visitor sent suitcases of clothes.
Despite all the support, the family continued to struggle, especially with food – there was never enough. And mosquitos would bite little James and give him malaria, something his compromised immune system wasn’t able to handle all the time. And then TB would come. And the sun would be hot. And there was no sink for drinks of clean water and hand washing. And the flies were everywhere, all over James’ body. And mom and dad were gone. And school was a dream. And there was no money. And playing with friends? And being a kid? And having fun? But there was lots of love. Brotherly love. Family love. Love from TASO Mbale. Love from Martha. Definately lots of love around. And James knew about all the love he had from his friends in the US. His counselor, Martha, told me and Colin that James would say proudly to his village friends, “Do you have friends in the USA? Because, I do!”
Sweet James. His soulful eyes and delicate smile softened so many hearts.