Trapped in the talons of trouble, our impulse may be to search the horizon in hope of deliverance, a stroke of fate that would banish threat and summon back the bluebirds. Such a pity! Since the strength to prise open the grip of suffering might well lie unrecognized just over the back fence.
It was over that back fence at the edge of town in the Kalahari that I stumbled in 2005 upon such a remedy during Africa’s HIV pandemic. Her name was Mma Chabe, ‘Mother of the Nation’. The signature of modest means was written across every detail of her homestead: a dusty courtyard, small windbreak for cooking, cinderblock dwelling with corrugated roof. She would tell you without wincing that she was HIV positive, having learned this in 1990 not long after her husband wasted away and died.
Stricken with worry, she turned to her faith in search of a path forward. From those depths there formed something like a calling: the care of her HIV positive neighbors, especially children who had been orphaned and branded at the passing of a dark angel. For as long as she had sufficient strength, she determined, she would be a shelter to the castaways of a scourge she knew all too well.
So, they appeared, willy-nilly, one-by-one, having heard there was refuge under Mma Chabe’s eaves: bewildered rejects, neighbors filled with dread, infants brought in the night by grannies too old or sick to tend their charges any longer. Others, widows like herself, came seeking the friendship and refreshment their stigma had cost them elsewhere. By her count, 130 in all. Some she visited with succor in their homes. Others crowded into her shrinking back rooms. She had no visible means to sustain this family. But the story chattered by neighbors stirred the community first to shame, that a single, doomed widow of humble wherewithal had performed such a feat of love, but then were swept up by inspiration, rallying to her side. A bath house and kitchen appeared. Someone conjured up sleeping quarters. A truck and crew rolled in to install playground equipment. At every such turn, like a Picasso painting, the children circled the courtyard with thrumming dance and song. All in the middle of a withering pandemic.
Who could resist the transformation that followed? The village was stirred out of its torpor despite the ongoing toll. And Mma Chabe herself, who lived under the sentence of a foreshortened life, outlasted all expectations in the verve of her calling. Her young charges went on in their lives, braced by mercies and caring. What is more, her story, as in this instance, is being remembered in other places and times as a bulwark against pandemic resignation and despair.
Such are the remedies that lie just over the back fence.