Over the past two years I have had the privilege of serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi for a rural hospital in the central region of Malawi. I have had many ups and downs as you always do in life. The one thing they tell you about Peace Corps service is that your highs are really high and your lows are really low. But when I look at the whole thing together, I only feel gratitude now. I want to tell a story of a girl that I talked about once before in my previous writing. But I will just tell you the whole story again from the beginning of my encounter of her. I met Sarah when she was already 18 years old. She was born with HIV during the height of the epidemic in the late 90’s. Her father died before she was born and her mother followed in 2003. This was a time in Malawi when ARVs were still something that was not consistently found in the hospitals. She was given to her mother’s sister, her aunt to be raised. She was never told that she had HIV until she was 12 years old and figured it out. She was at the borehole gathering water where she heard the women speaking about the room number where people who had HIV went to get their medicines. But that room number was the same number where her aunt took Sarah every month as well. She was in secondary school at the time and in a boarding school. She became afraid that someone would find out that she was positive. She started throwing away her medicine in fear that the boys would find out and tease her. While in Malawi the stigma has reduced among adults who are living with HIV/AIDS, while children and adolescents it’s different. They still live in fear that their peers will find out and especially if you are a girl, you fear that the boys will find out. By the time she came home for school vacation she had rashes all over her body combined with T.B. She was counseled, given medication in a different bottle (disguised as vitamins) and sent back to school. That’s when my supervisor met her and then introduced her to me. She told me her story. By the time I met Sarah, her family was unable to pay her school fees so she sat at home. She told me her dream of wanting to graduate from Secondary School and become a nurse. I knew deep down inside that it was unlikely, but I still tried to find someone to help her. Thanks to a well-wisher, she was able to go to school. She was happy most of the time. She would come home sometimes and tell me of her fears that people would find out her status, but then she would go back after counseling. She came home one time and was really emaciated. I worried, but we gave her a different diet regimen and she improved. Some months passed and then she came home sick with T.B. again. I knew this time her illness was different. But no matter how sick she was she always wanted to return to school. I knew the conditions of the boarding school were weakening her immune system; lack of diverse diet, close quarters and stress. I tried to explain to her that it may be best that she goes to a local school until she could become strong again. But she refused. She told me once that ‘I don’t want to be a house girl’. At home she felt like a house girl, but at school she was free to focus on her education only. She came home one more time very sick. We laughed together knew that this time it was different. She tried to return to school to write her final exams, but was turned away because of her illness. Her mother called me one Saturday morning and said Sarah was asking for me. I came to her room to see that she was leaving us soon. I prayed for her, told her I loved her and said goodbye.
In Malawi when someone dies there are many different cultural practices that take place. First the family members come and show their last respect at the morgue. The chiefs come and give their condolences. Then they take the body to the home village to prepare for burial the next day. People come all day and night to sing spiritual hymns and grieve. I was not able to go the funeral the next day, but was grateful I had the opportunity to say goodbye to her. A few weeks passed and I was told that I needed to go to her house to collect something from Sarah’s aunt. I arrived and awkwardly spoke with her aunt in Chichewa about basic conversation starters. The weather, farming etc. Then she looked at me and said in perfect English ‘I want to give you something from Sarah’. She thanked me for the love and help I gave to Sarah. She spoke of how happy she was whenever she spoke of me. She said in Malawi, when someone dies they wrap the body in clothe. Then they take a piece of the cloth and cut in it in remembrance. She told me that I should take this clothe and wherever I go, whatever I do, always remember Sarah. Finally she told me to never forget her and to tell her story. So this is me sharing her story.
Sarah was my friend. She liked to read the bible and talk about the stories from the New Testament. She liked cake and liked to laugh.
This is her story.