Stephen Lewis: 'See us children carrying our parents in their coffins'

From a speech given by the UN envoy on HIV/Aids in Africa, to the Third International Aids Society Conference, meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
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The Independent Online

But precisely because the work you do speaks to the rescue of the human condition, you carry an immense public and international authority. I beg you never to underestimate that authority. And I beg you to use it beyond the realms of science.

Earlier this month, I was in Kenya, in a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, visiting a group of women living with Aids, tending to large numbers of orphan children. As is always the case with a visitor, there was a little performance. In this instance, a handful of children came forward to sing a song of their own composition. It began: "See us, the children carrying our parents in their coffins to the grave", and it ended with the words "Help, Help Help". And then from the crowd, there emerged a girl of 10 who related the story of the death of her mother.

I have heard many such stories from many such children. But I have rarely been left in such emotional disarray. It became clear that the mother had died only a few days before, and this little morsel of a girl, as she talked of her mother's trips in and out of hospital, and then the last weeks at home, wept copiously, uncontrollably; but it was a weeping as if the depths of the sea had been plumbed; the tears didn't just flow, they gushed, they soaked her sweater and ran down her skirt, and for a moment it was as if this one young girl became the pandemic incarnate.

Most of you probably feel very distant from the orphans. You're not. Nothing in this pandemic works in a vacuum or in compartments. Everything is linked inextricably to everything else. That girl is at the end of a continuum which starts with your scientific inquiry, and moves, inexorably, to her human anguish. That's why I appeal to you to enter the fray as advocates.