I met twins Hannah and Beth on the day they turned five. The two girls didn’t know it was their birthday, their mother Margaret had not told them as she had no means to provide presents or a cake, in fact, she wasn’t sure whether there would be food for them at all that day.
Margaret is HIV positive, her husband, the twins’ dad is believed to have first contracted the virus and is now dead. Hannah has also been diagnosed as HIV positive. As Margaret told me her story she stopped many times stifling the pain and the tears. As a mother, her tears were not for herself but for her beautiful girls…tears for Hannah whose life was to be cut short and tears for Beth whom would be left alone.
HIV does not discriminate but in relation to the twins it chose to spare one, a cruel twist when good health commits a small child to a life left alone on the streets of a sprawling slum in Nairobi.
As the girls danced and played outside the rusting corrugated iron shack they called home, they seemed oblivious to their suffering, unaware of their plight, their future or their loss… two normal happy 5-year-old girls locked in their own world together. As I watched them, Margaret told me of the love they have for each other, how they slept wrapped in each other’s arms and how they never left each other’s side. Again tears rolled down Margaret’s face as she contemplated Hannah’s death. She did not fear her own death only the consequences it would create for her children.Margaret and her girls
Children left to fend for themselves on the streets here are vulnerable to disease and sexual exploitation, their only protection is in numbers so they flock together for safety, hunting in packs and sleeping rough, they scavenge for food sharing what little they find, and create a family to replace the one they have lost… and incredibly most of them survive.
This is not the life a Mother would wish for her child. However it is not Margaret’s greatest fear, what Margaret fears most is that Beth, unable to cope with the loss of Hannah will almost certainly take her own life.
“There go I but for the grace of God,” I think again… I think of my girls at home and what their fifth birthdays were like, the four month count down, the wish lists, the parties and what turning 5 means to a child in the western world, the first taste of independence, education, new beginnings. I look at Hannah and Beth, playing amidst the rubbish and sewage, they don’t want for anything because they have never had anything, but the fact that they only know this life, a life of begging for food, crying yourself to sleep hungry and watching the other kids go to school doesn’t mean that Beth and Hannah do not have a right to a decent childhood and a good life, they can’t ask for it, but we can give it to them.The twins smiling
One of the things I love about my job is there are times when I can do something personal to help and the best thing I can do for these girls right now is celebrate them, I buy both girls a cake and watch as two cakes, candles blazing are paraded towards them in their mother’s hands… the pure delight, the absolute joy and surprise from the twins in that moment, I treasure. The look on Margaret’s face sharing their joy was beautiful. As we eat cake and sing happy birthday Margaret tells me that this is the first birthday party the girls have ever had.
Meeting Margaret and the twins I can’t help but feel a deep sadness knowing that disease has given this family a death sentence and premature separation, sadness that turns to anger at the injustice small children like Beth and Hannah face, condemned to struggle to survive. Small children whom soon may find themselves abandoned and alone on the streets, whilst greed and gluttony parade themselves shamelessly in all walks of our modern world.
In a world where there is enough for everyone I wonder what it will take for everyone to get what they need? We live in a time when it is every man for himself and the winner takes all but to leave our fellow man in the gutter as we step over them on the way to the ball still seems to go against the grain of being human. Perhaps I am naive to believe in goodness as an intrinsic human quality but the funny thing about giving is that it makes you feel so good.
[Ed: Hannah and Beth feature in the television commercial that Phill shot. You can view it here.]