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Everyone Has a Role to Play Against AIDS

Zimbabwe, August 21, 2006

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[Editor's Note: This Op-Ed was published by The Oregonian]

Waking up in a country in which prices double every month, where four out of five people live in poverty and where HIV infects 20 percent of the population is like waking up into a bad dream, not out of one.

This is the grim reality of living in my native land of Zimbabwe.

Perhaps the most despairing thing of all in Zimbabwe is the 1 million children who have been orphaned by AIDS. To put that number in perspective, that's about twice the number of children enrolled in all of Oregon's public schools.

As global HIV/AIDS activists, scientists and policymakers convened in Toronto last week at the 16th International AIDS Conference -- the theme was "Time to Deliver" -- I was there to remind them of these children and how communities with the right resources can help them.

Who are these kids? The 10-year-old boy digging in his vegetable garden when he should be at school. The 8-year-old girl cooking for, washing and cleaning up after her AIDS-stricken parents. The 5-year-old boy, begging bowl in hand, pleading for money in the doorways of bars and brothels because he has no elder family member to provide for him.

These are the children I work with every day. My Mercy Corps colleagues and I are helping communities do the work that once fell to parents. Caring adults from rural villages on the outskirts of Zimbabwe's capital are forming groups that take responsibility for orphaned children. Schools in these communities have also stepped forward by agreeing to give free tuition to indigent children in exchange for badly needed building repairs and textbooks.

Even in the poorest communities, we've found that with minimal organization and resources, people find innovative ways to make life better for children affected by AIDS. Truly sustainable solutions are the ones that bubble up from the grass roots. What is happening to children in Zimbabwe is real, and we all must fight to make it better.

Ordinary citizens, not just national leaders and international aid agencies, have a role to play. Last February, three students at Portland's Grant High School put on a fashion show that raised $1,734 for Africans affected by AIDS. The money, which the trio donated to Mercy Corps, is enough to pay one year's school fees for about 60 Zimbabwean children: That's two full classrooms of future educators, businesswomen, social entrepreneurs, doctors and political leaders.

This act of compassion, and those of villagers who join our Child Protective Committees in rural Zimbabwe, show how people can make communities safer for vulnerable children, even if those communities are halfway around the world.

Americans can do something else to help the children in Africa fight against the disease that is taking away their parents, teachers and caregivers. Add your voice to the growing chorus calling for action against AIDS by joining the ONE Campaign. More than 2.3 million Americans have already joined this historic charge to combat HIV/AIDS and eradicate extreme poverty worldwide by devoting an additional 1 percent of the federal budget to international assistance. That tiny slice of government expenditures, according to estimates, can prevent 10 million AIDS orphans and send more than 100 million African children to school.

We have no excuse to fail. We now have effective models of prevention, drug regimens that work and wealthy governments that have pledged to make a difference. Too many dreams are at risk of being unfulfilled. It is indeed time to deliver.

Patrick Makokoro is an assistant project manager for Portland-based Mercy Corps' HIV/AIDS program in his native Zimbabwe.