Autumn Campbell, a senior at MU, traveled halfway around the world to learn a lesson she could never be taught in a classroom.
Campbell spent Oct. 3-10 walking through South Africa for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation’s Walk for Hope. In the course of that week, Campbell saw first hand the ravages that the AIDS epidemic has wrought.
She met children and mothers struggling with the disease and learned about researchers working to save them.
The numbers alone are heartbreaking. Every day, 2,000 children across the world become infected with HIV/AIDS, the Glaser foundation Web site reported in December 2003. In South Africa, 230,000 children already are infected with the virus, the World Health Organization reported the same month.
“It’s an issue that’s tugged at my heartstrings for the past couple of years,” Campbell said.
For Campbell, South Africa was a country of incongruities. Landing in Johannesburg felt like landing in Los Angeles, she said — but then she visited a township where houses were made from mud and old tin.
Campbell said that as she and the other walkers made their way through villages, people asked in Zulu, “Where are you going?”
For them, walking is functional, Campbell said. They didn’t understand why so many foreigners had come to walk through their country and learn about their problems.
They welcomed the walkers not only with questions but with song.
Women and children sang as the group entered the African Children’s Feeding Scheme in Soweto, which provides meals to about 14,000 children each day.
At the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital — one of the largest in the world — traditional healers blessed the walkers as they began their journey.
Small children at a “crèche,” or local day care, led the group in song and dance. Students at Khulubone Primary School sang while a select few danced as well.
When the walkers arrived at the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies, they were greeted by traditional Zulu drummers and dancers. But beyond the music and dancing, the walkers also learned about the real work that places like the Africa Centre are doing to address the AIDS epidemic.
The center, which serves as home base for about 120 scientists and 250 field workers, is a partner with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation in the Call to Action Project. The project funds programs for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS. Money for such projects comes from fund-raisers such as Campbell.
Because she participated in the walk, Campbell is responsible for raising $10,000 to help support the foundation’s outreach programs, like the Call to Action Project.
Halfway to her $10,000 goal, Campbell has not seen the outpouring of support she had hoped for. She said that when she speaks about funding pediatric AIDS research, people often reply that they are more concerned with local problems or with the war in Iraq.
In response, Campbell has one question: “What are you doing over here?”
The day-to-day hardship for pediatric AIDS patients in South Africa was especially apparent to Campbell on the final day of the walk when she and other participants spent the afternoon at the Hlabisa Hospital, painting a classroom and building a playground for the pediatric patients.
After the volunteers installed a seesaw on the playground, they brought out a young patient to play. She sat on one end in her hospital gown, and one of the volunteers sat on the other. The child had no idea what to do with a seesaw. Campbell remembers tearing up when she realized that not only was this little girl suffering from a terrible disease, but she had also never had the chance to play with toys that healthy American children take for granted.
“It was a happy time, that’s when it really hit me how they live,” Campbell said.
Her experience in South Africa has left Campbell ready for more.
“If I didn’t have eight weeks of school,” she said, “I’d be tempted to stay.”