A team of two MBAs from UNC and Duke University volunteered to help generate jobs in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. We gathered these stories while working with the local ACT project for the NGO called the Society of International Missionaries.  This gentle organization works predominantly with woman living on less than a dollar a day and surviving with HIV.  With the disease has come economic hardship and they all live in humble conditions.

Haile and Makeda*  -- Living with stigma

As we enter Haile and Makeda’s compound, we walk through a big metal gate hemmed in by cinder block walls.  They share this rare luxury of a security wall with a few other families, and we wave to them as we walk around the back of the main house to a small home attached to the main structure.  Their home is constructed of mud, wood and tin, like many homes we see.  As we get closer to the door, Haile glances nervously at his wife Makeda.

Makeda tentatively starts to share with us her experience, glancing periodically at Haile to see where he is emotionally.  His face blank, she tells us about their life prior to the sickness: how Haile worked in construction and Makeda washed clothes.  Between their incomes, they enjoyed a life that felt normal, and during this time they brought their beautiful son into the world. 

The environment in the room changes as Makeda grows quiets and Haile tells “I wandered from home intimately and contracted HIV.”  The HIV then spread to Makeda before they knew Haile’s status.  His voice grows soft as he tells us “Many of our closest friends left us when they found out about our HIV.  This hurts us a lot.  We thought we could trust them.”  The emotion of this weighs heavily in the room and casts a spell of silence on all of us.

The spell breaks as Makeda starts to talk again.  In Haile and Makeda we begin to feel the courage of a married couple surviving the HIV pandemic together.  She is thirty, and he is forty-two, and their wonderful 9-year old son goes to school regularly.  They model themselves as regular citizens, and due to their earlier experiences with stigmatism, they are careful to keep their status private.  Gentleness emanates from them as they share their sensitive memories of living on the receiving end of the HIV stigma and experiencing the lost relationships as a result.  In their parting words they show us the pain and joy of learning to love themselves even when the outside world pours judgment down: “we are grateful you have come to share our story and visit with us as friends.”

Berta*  Berta’s story is one of acceptance – acceptance of living with HIV. 

 As we entered Berta’s compound, we saw that she lives in a house built from mud and straw with a blue tarp covering her floor.  From her willowy frame she gestures to some hunks of wood and shyly says “please take a seat,” before starting to tell her story.

Berta washed clothes and enjoyed the simple life prior to her diagnosis.  Then, HIV came into her home through her husband, as is often the case.  The disease passed to her and eventually to their daughter during child birth.  And her little baby eventually died.  The pain associated with this loss etches lines on Berta’s face as she digs deeply into her emotions while sharing with us.   Her tone shifts a little as she talks about her two year old son and his status – he is negative.  Yet, here too lives some pain; as Berta grew ill and separated from her husband, her financial situation destabilized. Eventually, she had to ask one of her sisters to care for her son.  And he now lives away from his mom.  Indeed, the loss of everyone in her immediate family unit clearly burdens Berta.

She has healed physically in many ways with the help of Anti-Retroviral Treatment, though her spiritual side still feels like an open wound.  Even with this burden Berta is the oldest sibling and in this role she feels a responsibility to remain strong for her family.  As a result, she has only told one of her sisters about her status.

Sharing her social status as someone with HIV brings a softness to Berta’s voice.  She expresses gratitude for finally coming to accept this condition.  In Berta’s words lives a tangible sense of confusion at the strange turn of events life offers.  A wave of strength and acceptance passes through to us as Berta say “I am grateful to God for the strength to finally accept living with HIV.”

 

Elaine* -- Elaine’s story is one of standing up again.

Elaine invites us into a room about the size of a small moving truck that she calls home.  Above us we see thin wooden beams and in front of us a room walled with tin.  Holes in the tin allow dim light to filter in.  She casually invites us “please sit wherever you like” – and gestures to some plastic boxes and a few wooden stools.

As we take our seats, we sense a deep wisdom in Elaine.  She looks us over thoughtfully and speaks directly to each of us.  She tells us about her successful restaurant prior to HIV, and how this helped bring HIV into her life.  During this time, she had some gentlemen friends who came to visit to help supplement her income.  One of them likely brought HIV.  As the HIV took hold and she grew ill, her family took her children because she could no longer afford to care for them.  The memory of this loss ripples across her face as she bravely masks an underlying sadness we sense in her.  She pauses for a few minutes lost in thought while sharing this. 

As we start to ask questions again, she smiles out from her leathery skin, wrinkled with wisdom, and we sense a social being with kindness at her core.  In this essence, we feel perseverance rooted in her like the bedrock of a mountain.  Deep within she chuckles as and her eyes twinkle as she tells us “I wish to start a restaurant business again, and bring my kids home.”

Part of our income generation project will help people like Elaine, who already have strong entrepreneurial skills, to re-start businesses and create value in their communities.  In Elaine’s case, like many others, this venture may offer her enough money to bring her children back into her home.  Through her courage and willingness to start back up again, Elaine shows us the amazing resilience of a loving spirit.

 

Devid*  Devid’s story show us self-forgiving

Devid emanates kindness as says “please come in” and waves us into his home.  His face invites us to listen as he talks about his life before HIV, fighting on the border with Eritrea.  These memories about the harsh conditions of war cause him to look at the floor with a flash of shame.  His face softens as he shares “in my weak moments I went to a prostitute” – one of the primary ways HIV spreads among men.

As a survivor of HIV, Devid is a forty-two year old man with five children and a beautiful wife.  His responsibility to his family comes through quickly in his story.  Sitting next to him, listening to his wisdom, Devid feels intelligent, healthy, and peaceful.  He openly relays to us how men usually bring home HIV to the family and how he almost gave up on life over the guilt he feels.  His spirit shifts gears as he talks lovingly about the strength of his wife while helping him forgive and let go of his guilt.  We are struck by this amazing story of love and kindness while surviving this pandemic.  In the midst of this, he says “the joy in my life comes through helping people with their suffering.”  Devid displays the grace of someone surviving a life changing trauma with kindness and acceptance.

His own struggles now focus on discovering opportunities to support his family financially.  He tells us about his experience working on automobile electronics and brokering business deals in the local community.  With Devid we sense the spiritual strength to re-engage the community as an entrepreneur while supporting his family.  His strength seems to come from forgiving himself.

As we prepare to leave, Devid looks deep into our eyes and says “Thank you for coming to sharing kindness with the people of Ethiopia – thank you.”  These final words carry the grace of royalty.

Like Devid and all the beneficiaries, we thank you for sharing in these stories, and wish you the same sense of humility we felt while sharing kindness with these humble people.

Post-Project update:

As part of the project, Devid and eight other men are starting a construction materials supply company in the community.  Devid’s brokering experience offers a healthy network of business contacts and brings expertise with running this type of business.  He clearly displays the spiritual leadership to complement these entrepreneurial skills.

 

*Note, we changed everyone’s names to protect identities.  We are grateful to these kind spirits for sharing so deeply and with so much trust.  They continue to touch our lives, and perhaps they will touch yours in a healthy way.