Where had Neema gone? We were out visiting the sick in Mwefu village, and following up on those who had just started taking ARVs, but Neema wasn’t there at her house. Neema has been part of our lives for eight months now, and not once have I gone to her home and not found her bed-ridden, in real pain with TB, sores, swollen legs and anything and everything else that goes along with merciless AIDS. When the doctors and nurses had come for a "training day" to explain how to take the ARV medication and how to stay healthy, I sent Jovinus with my little car to go get her. For months and months when we would have clinic at our HIV/AIDS Community Treatment Center and people would come by the hundreds, walking from all of these villages, Jovinus would go to pick up Neema, as well as several of my other friends who are bed-ridden, and he would bring them to the clinic each time. Even when she first started to be able to walk, I would still send the car for her because I was afraid the long walk would zap her strength and do her in. And so I was puzzled, and I was worried. Where could Neema have possibly gone?
As we continued visiting people in their homes, I kept inquiring about Neema, and eventually I learned that someone had seen Neema getting a ride on a tea truck to who knows where. I was shocked. I found myself worrying that she maybe had run away to the city, or that she had taken off for somewhere for something and wondering why she couldn't have found someone to go on the errand for her instead of using up her strength. And I was disappointed at not seeing my friend. I was worried about her.
But we continued on, making the rounds, and then as it was getting dark we finally got to Faraja's house. She was so sick and I wanted to make sure that I got to her house that day just to encourage her to not give up and to bring her a little gift of good food. And as I entered Faraja's home, there sitting close to the fire was not only Faraja, but of all people, Neema as well! She had come to comfort and encourage her friend! Neema's beautiful face was all lit up by the light of the fire, and there she was, so looking like an angel. I was so touched by all of the effort she had made to be a comfort and an encouragement to someone else, when I knew that even the walk itself quite literally could kill her. Neema's feet were so swollen -- I could see that by the light of the fire as well -- but the love in her heart was even bigger than her own concerns about her feet. And there in that dark little house, I felt I was in the presence of greatness.
Our walk with Neema and HIV and AIDS has not been an easy one.
When she got so sick, she needed her mother. But her mother had long since died. And so it was an uncle, and his wife, who took her in when she came home from the city so sick. And they shared what they had, but when someone is so obviously going to die, often the help gets cut off. Poverty does that. It's not that people stop loving, it's just that when you are tremendously poor you have to make choices of what to do with what you have. Not being educated compounds the problem. At the hospital they say things fast, and they write things down that people often can't read, and so it happens that rather than it being understood that TB drugs are to be taken for six months, somehow it gets understood that they are to be taken for six days. And so after six days when there is no sign that the TB medications had solved the problem, Neema and her uncle and aunt returned to what they knew -- witchcraft. I clearly remember very early Easter morning visiting her. She was so sick. It was then that I realized food wasn’t being given to her, and little containers of who knows what were placed around her were in lieu of real medicine. I asked the family, and Neema, right then and there that Easter morning to make a choice – to stick with our program for AIDS and TB or to let her die. Neema let us know right then that she didn’t want to die, she wanted to live! She wanted to live! And so we planned then on controlling all of her medicines and what food she would eat. We boiled eggs, brought avocadoes, yogurt and fed it to her everyday with our own hands. We even had to watch her swallow her pills. It took weeks of daily visits for Neema to start getting better and to convince the rest of the family that there was hope. And that investing in helping her to live made sense. We now had allies in the fight for life, in the fight for Neema's life.
Neema slowly got well enough that she qualified to get the ARVs and we rejoiced. You have to reach a certain level of health for the ARVs to work -- and that's what "qualifying" is all about. All of the eggs and yogurt had paid off! We still had a lot of work to do. But it didn't take long after Neema started the ARVs that she was out washing her clothes in a big plastic tub of water. A few days after that she actually was able to go to the well and was carrying water on her head ,contributing to the family chores as others do in our villages. She couldn't go very far, and she couldn't carry very much, but it was incredible progress. They call it the Lazarus effect, and truly for Neema, it was a miracle from God.
This past week, we had again our big clinic day (we have two a month!) when the doctors and nurses come from town to see the people in our villages. We had more than 400 people scheduled for this particular clinic day, Neema being one of them. When I didn't see her in the crowd of people that morning, I asked where she was, and people said she was on her way, she was just walking slowly. When an hour and a half later she still hadn't showed up, I learned that she had stopped by the side of the road because her legs had swollen up too much for her to continue. People wondered if the doctors could leave Neema's ARVs at the clinic so that she could get them tomorrow, or if they could give them to someone else to take them to her home, but ARVs are highly controlled and we all know the rules. Fuel has been scarce these days and I only had enough for Jovinus to make a single trip to get four people in Egereke who couldn't walk at all and to bring them to us. I knew after the car made it to the clinic with my friends from Egereke that I simply didn't have the gas to send the car out a second time to get Neema. But while I worried about that, wouldn't you know it, the Lord is good, it turned out that Neema had chosen a route which put her right on the side of the road where my little car passed. And there's always room for one more and so when Jovinus pulled up at the clinic, out got the four people we had sent the car to bring ... and also Neema!
Neema has a long journey ahead as these drugs make her body able to produce fighter cells, but a great sign is that she is planning for her future. She is getting milulu -- the reeds that the women use to make their lovely baskets. Anyone who knows me has probably received one of my baskets from my friends here. When we first started out, we used basket weaving more like “therapy” – something to think about, rather than your lot in life. Now we have moved towards making the most lovely baskets in the world. I have become so acquainted with the women’s different weaving styles that I can usually identify who wove what. I love the baskets as they remind me of my beautiful friends and their amazing journeys. I have a feeling Neema’s baskets will be extra strong and lovely as they reflect her beauty and ability. My house has baskets all over the place, in every room, big ones and small ones, with beautiful weaves and some less beautiful, a constant reminder to me to pray for a cure, and to pray for strength for my friends, and to pray for love.
I invite you to join me in that. And also to pray for my students. I want them to read Matthew 29:35-40 and for it be more than mere words. Jesus says in those verses in Matthew to visit the sick and to do it with the knowledge that "what you did for one of the least of these, you did for me". I want them to hear those words and then to see Neema, with her feet as swollen as they are, out visiting someone sicker than she is.