WASHINGTON – Nearly two years ago in the southern African nation of Zambia, Natasha Kangwa became an orphan and was diagnosed with HIV.
Natasha, whose parents died most likely of AIDS, was shunned by her community and couldn’t attend school. She said her condition only became worse.
“I was very sick,” Natasha,13, told Catholic News Service July 2 in a telephone interview from Zambia. “I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t walk.”
Natasha first arrived at Chreso Ministries Clinic near Lusaka two years ago.
Antiretroviral drugs, which boost the immune system while slowing down the spread of HIV, and other services provided by the clinic have improved Natasha’s condition.
Because of the care she received, she now can walk and talk, and has enrolled again in school.
And she dreams of becoming a doctor because, she said, “I want to help people.”
Natasha’s story was one of several that first lady Laura Bush heard during her recent visit to the clinic as part of her four-nation tour in Africa to promote the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.
The program, which was designed by President George W. Bush in 2003 to combat HIV and AIDS, supports the clinic through funds given to Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ international aid agency.
“The patients never thought in all of their lives that they’d be sitting next to the first ladies of the United States and Zambia telling them about their illness,” said Paul Macek, CRS’ country representative in Zambia.
But it was Natasha’s story that Macek said was the most compelling.
“I told her that I was an orphan,” Natasha said. “I broke down and started crying.”
Macek added: “We all got pretty emotional at that point. (Laura Bush) was very touched by the stories.”
Located in the center of Zambia, the clinic is sandwiched between a densely crowded community whose residents are mostly poor and living in compounds and an airport.
The clinic started as a small HIV testing center in 1996 servicing the surrounding community. Macek said that the clinic’s first client was brought to them in a wheelbarrow. And as the clinic’s services expanded, so did the number of clients.
“The center just took off,” he said. The clinic provides health care and support for more than 12,000 people living with HIV/AIDS.
Jonathan Khata, community health coordinator for the clinic, said Zambians “appreciate what America is doing.”
Khata said he hopes that the first lady’s visit will spark more debate and funding for clinics in Zambia treating people affected with HIV/AIDS.
The plight of children living with HIV/AIDS is not publicized in Zambia, he said, and few people know that treatment clinics exist for children.