Those little girls are going to miss them even more.

Those little girls are going to miss them even more.

I remember the first time I was confronted with the reality that using the names of people and not their numbers upset the government medical personnel. We were distributing people's files on a HIV/AIDS clinic day a few years back and I got scolded and told that we were the ONLY clinic in the whole region that used names -- and the head doctor didn't mean that as a compliment. She really was angry. I remember that it really struck me odd that using names and not numbers would be so disturbing –especially in a place where people have never gone to school and consequently don’t know numbers. Being a rule-follower is normally one of my faults I guess, but on this I just couldn't bring myself to comply. These people – each and every one of these people living with HIV/AIDS has a name, a family and story -- and I feel like I know them all, I've been in their homes, I've eaten their food and I have been to oh too many funerals. Yes, I can understand the logic of it all – it probably makes it much easier (sort of) to do the stats and maybe easier to make sure the right medicine goes to the right person. And I do know that looking at people who are living with HIV/AIDS as numbers, not people, almost certainly can make it easier to sleep at night. Even as I sit here at my computer, my thoughts are of the two latest SMS messages that had come to my phone informing me of the deaths of two lovely mothers – Veronica and Jetelina. They'll definitely never be numbers 1753 and 1891 to the kids they've left behind, and I'm glad that at our clinic, even if it did make those government doctors upset, no one at our clinic ever knew their numbers -- and I don't think those mothers ever did either.

At the recent “Prevention Against New HIV Infections” committee meeting in our community, I learned that just over 45 percent of our pregnant moms in our area in the last 5 years have tested HIV positive. That is staggering. We discussed all sorts of ways to prevent new infections -- all of which were good -- but I came away from the meeting convinced all the more that the most important thing we can do is to get, and then to keep, girls in school. And to concentrate on the ones who are always on the verge of falling through the cracks. Those girls whose parents are already dead. Those who come from homes where the parents have divorced, because it's the kids from those families who get left hanging with no one interested in helping them go to school. Or the kids who come from polygamous homes, since it usually means that the kids from the "out-of-favor wife" don't get to go to school. These kinds of kids are easy to find. I have been gathering them up all these years. The path to the tea fields goes by our school. That wonderful tea everyone drinks comes with a price. All I have to do is to stand out there on the path and find those kids who are going out to the fields to pick tea and not to come to school. I suppose it makes the managers at the plantation angry when their workers don't show up anymore, but when I see those young girls all I know in my heart is that it just shouldn't be happening. The world just shouldn't be like this anymore.

One of these girls is Lydia. I put her in school last year. It was only a few months later though that she dropped out. I saw her on the path to the tea fields and stopped her to ask her what happened. With tears in her eyes she told me why she had left school. Life sometimes is just so hard for these kids. I got her back in school. Found a place for her to stay. Made arrangements for her to eat at Mama Grace's (she's Godfrey's wife and my partner in all this…) Lydia is one of “my kids” now. During her two months of working in the tea fields she made about 30 dollars, all of which her brother took away from her. I learned from her that a few years ago, her older sister Olive, who had been in our school and “just disappeared” one day, had been sent to Dar by that older brother of hers. To be a “house-girl.” Lydia told me Olive returned last year with AIDS and a baby. The country has laws about hiring under-aged workers like Lydia and Olive. But people here do believe that employing Lydia in the tea fields or employing Olive in someone's house was the kindest thing to do, since the alternative might well be something far worse. And people might be right. All I know is that when I look at Lydia today, I see one of the happiest girls in the whole school. She is always smiling. And she just studies so hard. Every time I see her out of class she always stops me to tell me how happy she is that she gets to go to school.

What I didn’t know about Lydia until last month is that she had a younger sister, Elinda. I met her in the same way I had met Lydia. I found her walking on the tea path one day in December and is my custom I asked her why she wasn’t in school. She had nothing to say. I coaxed out of her what had happened. She had just finished the seventh grade. It was only the kindness of her primary school teacher who had taken her in that had made it possible for her to get that far. But once she graduated from the little primary school in the village, she had no place to go, so out to the tea fields she went. She's in class with her sister now. She no longer looks at the ground when you talk to her. There's joy in those eyes of hers now. A lovely smile on her face. She's part of my family of daughters that I keep close. They all have one thing in common – they really want to study. And school is the safest place for them until they are old enough to be out in this world.

As I look out my window, there are flowers everywhere. My group of daughters had come to ask if they could earn some money to go to church camp over Easter break. There is laughing, joking and work going on in my garden. None of the cares of the world etched on their faces anymore. They are young teenagers filled with hope and dreams for a bright future. I hope to add the daughters of Veronica and Jetelina to my growing family – Tulizo, Sijali and Sifa – the three little girls I sat with at the funerals for their mothers today. I'm going to miss Veronika and Jetelina. Those little girls are going to miss them even more. Their mothers would never want them to work in those tea fields. Never. They'd want them in school. I want to make sure they're there.