The difference between Minneapolis and Cape Town, South Africa is much greater than the 10,000 miles that separates one of the northernmost cities in the United States from the southernmost city on the African continent. The disparities between the two are immediately noticeable, even to the most bleary-eyed traveler, upon arriving in Cape Town. The majority of South Africans are black and more than a million of them live in the townships and informal settlements that line the freeway leading from the airport into the city.

A new arrival to South Africa can’t avoid seeing the poverty, but it’s easy to ignore. And it’s even easier to ignore that South Africa has more people with HIV/AIDS – over 5.7 million – than any other country in the world. Staggering statistics like these nearly absolve those of us with power and privilege from any responsibility to act. All of that changes when you meet one of those 5.7 million people who isn’t living with HIV, but is dying from AIDS. At least it did for me on a memorable day in 2001.

In February of that year I traveled to Cape Town with a group of Minnesotans to learn about the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Our host, a local minister, said he would show us how the disease was affecting his community. He drove us through the townships to a tiny house with a dirt yard that had been made bare by the young children playing on it. Inside, a frail woman named Beauty sat on the only piece of furniture in the living room, a threadbare sofa. Our small group gathered around her as Beauty told her story in a voice so weak we could hardly hear her.

Beauty’s siblings had died from AIDS, leaving Beauty to care for five of her nieces and nephews along with three children of her own. Then, the father of her children got sick and died. It wasn’t long before Beauty, too, was losing weight, developing lesions on her skin and coughing. Beauty knew, before the test confirmed it, that she had become an AIDS statistic.

In the developed world, in places like Minnesota, people with HIV/AIDS were receiving medications in 2001 that were extending and improving their lives. Beauty, and millions like her in Africa, didn’t have access to these drugs. She did tell us, however, that she was fortunate because she had aspirin to take for her pain. By this time in my life I had known many people who had died from AIDS and I knew that aspirin would not begin to relieve Beauty’s suffering. But Beauty had more immediate concerns that day. Too sick to work, she had no money to buy food for herself and the eight children who were, or would soon become, AIDS orphans. She said she couldn’t think about tomorrow – of what would become of the children after she died – because right now the children were hungry.

I don’t know what my traveling companions thought on that silent ride back to our hotel following our visit with Beauty, but I sensed my life had changed. A dying woman in a township in South Africa, who I would never see again, taught me more about social injustice in 20 minutes than I had previously learned in 40 years. My work, and my life, would never be the same.

Two weeks after that visit I got an e-mail from our South African host that simply said, “Beauty died today.” She had become yet another statistic – one of 25 million people who have died of AIDS since 1981.

In my mind, I can still see Beauty sitting on that sofa in her house in the township. Today, because of that brief encounter on February 11, 2001, I see beauty in the faces of other people who are poor, sick and hungry and I feel compelled to do something about it.

 

 

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