Accounts like the following always remind me of how much I have and how much I have always had, by virtue of a million little acts of luck surrounding the time and place of my birth and other factors.
I want really desperately at some point to be able to adopt a child who may need to be rescued from a situation such as this one. And, yeah, I'm aware of the pitfalls of having a rescuer complex.
I read this story, and I looked at the accompanying photo, and I thought of Abu, the kid who used to run all kinds of errands for me in Ghana for most of the eight months I was there. He was, in a lot of ways, like a little brother. But I never stayed in touch with him, and I wonder so often what happened to him. What kind of 24- or 25-year-old man is he now?
We do what we can. Whereever we are.
Kenyan Teen's Death Exposes Gaps Seen
in HIV/AIDS Support Network
By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 15, 2006
WANDUMBI, Kenya — After losing his parents to AIDS, Isaiah Gakuyo spent most of his short life shuttled among relatives who said the boy had only himself to blame for the beatings and abuse they heaped upon him. "He was always looking for trouble," an aunt said of the HIV-positive 14-year-old.
By the time AIDS activists came to move Isaiah to a rescue home, relatives had banished him to a woodshed, where he was forced to use a separate cup and plate and wasn't allowed to play with a younger cousin.
Their intervention would not be enough. On a wet morning this spring, one of Isaiah's uncles hacked him to death with a forked hoe. As the boy lay bleeding, relatives and neighbors watched in horror, but none offered help until plastic gloves arrived from the local dispensary.
Many describe Isaiah's brutal slaying as an "honor killing," symptomatic of the hatred and discrimination faced by millions of people living with HIV in Africa. Efforts to arrest the 26-year-old uncle have failed, police say, because family members are taking food to him in the forest.
"The family wanted him dead," Nazlin Omar Rahput, an outspoken political activist in Kenya, said of Isaiah. "They saw him as an eyesore."
But even as the killing has shaken Kenyans and sparked a national debate over care and support for those living with HIV, it has also divided the country. Some sympathize with the family, characterizing the attack as a spontaneous fit of rage by an overburdened caretaker. The killing, they say, exposes deep gaps in the nation's AIDS support network, particularly for the 750,000 children, like Isaiah, orphaned by the disease.
"I can only imagine the pressures of taking care of a child you know is dying," said Wangari Muta Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning environmentalist and parliament member who represents the Nyeri district, where the family lives. "We are all angry at the uncle, but how many of us tried to help him when he was taking care of the boy?"
Isaiah's problems began shortly after his birth in 1991. When his parents learned they were HIV-positive, his father abandoned the family, forcing his mother to return here to her family homestead near Nyeri, a quiet, impoverished community in the Rift Valley in central Kenya. She died in 1994, and Isaiah and a baby sister were taken in by their grandmother.
Soon AIDS would decimate the family. Isaiah's young sister died. Then two aunts. Then the grandmother. By 2000, the family's suffering was apparent around the community. "Everybody knew," said Daniel Gathuku, 53, a neighbor.
Isaiah ended up in the custody of Justice Ndumia, one of the several uncles who cared for the boy. This one was prone to abandoning his own family for months at a time.
Though Isaiah was beginning to suffer health problems, he excelled in school.
"He was a very bright boy," recalled Marwa Kihumba, headmaster of Wandumbi Primary School. Isaiah was so eager to be accepted at a top secondary school that he decided to repeat the eighth grade and retake his graduation exams because he believed he could score higher, Kihumba said.
But clashes at home with his uncle were growing. Isaiah complained about feeling sick and developed skin rashes. His hair fell out in patches, which he tried to cover with headbands and hooded jackets. When the uncle threatened to whip the boy for failing to do his chores, Isaiah ran away.
After Isaiah stayed briefly with neighbors, tribal leaders persuaded a distant relative, a Presbyterian Church elder, to shelter the boy.
Worried he might infect their grandson, who was also living at their farm, Charles Kariuki, 65, and his wife, Grace, put Isaiah in a shack once used for chickens. They bought him a strong disinfectant soap, hoping it would clear up his boils and sores.
"We had another little boy here to think about," Kariuki said.
After Isaiah complained to teachers about mistreatment at home, they contacted AIDS activists. By the time Isaiah arrived at a Nyeri rescue center, his CD4 count, a key indicator of the body's immune system, was 2. Normal CD counts range from 500 to 1,500.
Doctors at the center, run by the Kenya Network of Women with AIDS/HIV, immediately prescribed a daily regimen of antiretroviral drugs and began treating possible tuberculosis. Center officials say the gaunt, 4-foot-6 boy thrived, playing with other HIV-positive children, watching cartoons and learning for the first time about his disease.
"People hated him because of his appearance, so it was a good environment for him," said Francis Muiruri, head of the Nyeri center.
During group therapy and counseling, Isaiah frequently broke into tears while recalling his life and the treatment by his family, counselors said. But they said he appeared to accept his HIV status, even mentoring younger children about the disease.
After a month, Isaiah was asked whether there was anyone in the family who could care for him. He mentioned a young uncle, John Kiboi.
At 26, Kiboi was barely able to care for himself. An orphan like Isaiah, he was unemployed, uneducated and unmarried. Relatives and villagers considered the young man, known for drinking and pot smoking, an unsuitable choice, but no one intervened.
In the fall of 2005, the arrangement seemed to be working. Isaiah returned to school, and Kiboi appeared to be taking an interest, fetching the free food and medicine offered at the center, officials said.
But Isaiah's mood began to darken, friends and family members say.
"After he came back from the rescue center, he said he didn't want to take his medicine anymore," said Ann Mumbi, 18, a neighbor and friend who often cooked for Isaiah and washed his clothes. "He said he just wanted to die."
His behavior became more erratic. Once he burned his clothes and bed blankets, according to an aunt. Another day he announced he planned to dig up his mother's grave to retrieve a watch he believed was buried with her.
"He did all that just so he would be beaten," said Mary Njeri, an aunt married to Ndumia, the uncle who had driven Isaiah to run away.
Isaiah repeated his exams at the end of 2005. He not only scored worse, but his mark was below the minimum required to be accepted at any secondary school.
At the center's Christmas party, volunteers from the AIDS/HIV network tried to bolster his mood, promising they would intervene with school officials to find someplace willing to accept him. They promised to raise the money for his school fees.
The arrangement with Kiboi was beginning to strain. The young man expected other family members to share in Isaiah's care, but none stepped forward. He tried to return Isaiah to the rescue center, but the boy pleaded to return home with him.
"He was fed up with taking care of the boy," said Nancy Macharia, a center counselor. A week before the attack, Isaiah showed up at the center complaining he wasn't being fed.
Mumbi said tensions peaked the night before the attack. Uncle and nephew quarreled after Kiboi accused Isaiah of disclosing Kiboi's secret courtship of a local girl to the girl's mother.
Mumbi said she spent that night in Isaiah and Kiboi's home, and when they awoke she sent the boy to a neighbor's for fire or matches to cook breakfast. But no one was home there. When the boy returned, Kiboi became enraged, hitting Isaiah with his fists, Mumbi said. She said she'd seen such beatings before, and she fled up the hill to wait until it was over.
A few moments later, she saw Kiboi running away and heard hysterical screaming from one of Isaiah's cousins, who had been working nearby in a field.
Mumbi and a dozen other neighbors rushed to find Isaiah lying on his stomach, deep punctures and gashes on the left side of his head. Eyes open and breathing steadily, Isaiah bled profusely and appeared to be unconscious. Next to him lay the bloodied hoe.
Bystanders were too afraid to bandage his wounds and sent someone to fetch a doctor.
"No one touched him," said Ann Wanjiku, 23, a neighbor. About 40 minutes later, someone returned with plastic gloves, and they carried Isaiah to a clinic a mile away.
"By the time he got here he already was in a deep coma," said Gichuki Nderitu, head of Wandumbi Health Dispensary. Nderitu said he'd treated Isaiah many times over the years and had deep reservations about Kiboi's ability to care for the boy. "I wasn't surprised it ended this way," he said.
Few members of Isaiah's family attended the funeral. Neighbors and tribal elders also stayed away. Instead, the boy's coffin was carried by AIDS activists and his friends at the rescue center.
At Isaiah and Kiboi's now vacant home, new padlocks keep visitors out. But a few reminders of the struggle can be seen by peering inside. Two broken windows. A picture of Isaiah's mother askew on the wall.
Today, only the aunt, Njeri, is left, supporting three children. Her husband died of AIDS in December. She said she hadn't seen Kiboi since he fled.
Tilling the soil around her home, she denied that AIDS had devastated the family, blaming Isaiah for the family's troubles. "It was all the boy," she said.
Less than 50 feet away is Isaiah's grave, a mound of red soil overlooking a sweeping green valley. Njeri said she thought Isaiah was buried near his mother, next to the cornfield, but no one could remember the exact location of her grave.
There is no marker or stone. Land is considered too valuable to dedicate for burial ground. After a few years, the mound will simply erode. Grasses and plants will take over. Eventually Isaiah's grave, like his mother's, will disappear under the cornfield.