Meet Jonathan – “Big John,” I overheard a friend call him, despite the fact that he is quite small for his age.
Jonathan’s parents died when he was 10, leaving the child on the streets and forced to fend for himself. So that’s what John did.
Shy about the details, Jonathan told me that after the last of his family had disappeared, he realized that nobody was going to take care of him. He accepted this, found a routine place to sleep, and joined the ranks of Blantyre’s uncounted street kids. And then, somewhat settled, Jonathan walked to the nearest hospital he knew of.
He found a doctor, asked to be tested for HIV, and, predictably, the test came up positive. So Jonathan asked how he could get medicine.
Roughly one year later, he boasts that he has never missed a day taking his ARV drugs. The kid is smart.
Jonathan’s no longer on the streets. A chance encounter saw him placed in an orphanage, which brings us to the second inspirational character I met at Jacaranda Foundation, a complex of schools and, come September, a health clinic, in Chigumula township, Blantyre.
I’ve long held some disdain for CNN’s annual “Heroes” television event.
I considered it a self-serving affair; a chance for a superfluous news network to flatter and aggrandize itself by filling a room full of celebrities that could then be filmed applauding good people who were poorer than them.
And what is a hero, anyways? Most instances of the word refer to the man who has spilled the most blood.
Then I spent an afternoon with one of CNN’s heroes –no quotation marks. My attitude has changed.
Marie da Silva is the 2008 CNN Hero for championing children. She received the title for founding the Jacaranda Foundation. Today, Jacaranda’s elementary and secondary schools provide an education to 400 orphaned or at-risk youth. After spending a couple of hours at Jacaranda, it’s difficult to express how strongly I agree with CNN’s assessment of da Silva.
“John is an amazing boy,” she told me. “He came here by himself and enrolled himself in school. And at the time, he was living alone. And he was just 10. Just 10 years old.
Da Silva confirmed that Jonathan put himself on ARV drugs. “He would go by himself to the hospital,” she explained. “He would walk, ever since he was a young child. And many children do that. Many children go by themselves to the hospitals to get their ARVs.”
On his feelings for Jacaranda, Jonathan is equally complimentary.
I’ve been given a life,” he said in Chichewa, speaking softly. “I’ve been given a family. I know that if I were still on the streets, I would not have a life.”
When Jonathan grows up, he wants to serve in the Malawi Defence Force.
According to UNICEF statistics, in 2009, there were 120,000 children aged 0-14 living HIV-positive in Malawi, and an estimated 650,000 thousand youth aged 0-17 orphaned by AIDS.
Jonathan is just one of them.