Sunday, September 10, 2000

A letter from the father of a friend in Africa

I received a letter in the mail the other day. It was from Kenya, a country where for two years I taught chemistry in a bush school as a Peace Corps volunteer. The return address on the letter was familiar, and the surname was too. But the first name was new. Even before I opened the letter, I sensed that something was wrong.

It was from the father of a former colleague of mine. He was writing to tell me that his son, and a good friend of mine, had died after a long illness. He had died on my birthday, the 29th of June.

The Swahili word for AIDS is ukimwi. His father never mentions this word in the letter. He doesn't have to. These days, when a man in the prime of his life dies in sub-Saharan Africa, where the HIV-infection rate for young people in some countries is around 20 percent, AIDS is highly implicated.

My friend's wife had died two years earlier. She was 28.

I've read this letter several times over. The father's grace and dignity is palpable on every folded side of the wrinkled aerogram. He was writing to me because he had found a letter from me among his son's belongings when he went to collect them from the school where his son had been teaching. Realizing that we had been friends, he wanted to write and inform me of his son's passing. He expressed the hope that, in spite of his son's death, we could continue the friendship.

When I returned from the Peace Corps, I was informed of the difficulty that Peace Corps volunteers would face reassimilating back into U.S. society. I didn't realize that four years later I'd still be processing that experience.

When a colleague at work tells me that he's spending $1,000 so that his son can go to Florida to play the tuba in a marching band competition, I think back on my former students, some of whom would come to class shoeless, hungry and with dry pens.

And when I think about how I recently spent $100 for a dinner for me and my fiancee, I recall that this was the monthly salary of my deceased friend.

Yeah, I guess I still have a little problem with that.

I think about the timing of my friend's death and the last episode of Survivor. It makes me wonder about the trivial lives that many in the developed world lead, that we would have to artificially create difficult situations for our amusement. I want to tell the producers of Survivor, "If you want to report on people who are truly struggling to survive, where the best they have to hope for after a month's ordeal is not $1 million, but a bowl of corn meal mush, then why don't you put a camera in the middle of the village in Kenya where I taught?"

We cluck our tongues and shake our heads at the grinding poverty in Africa and elsewhere in the world. We know it exists. We read about it. Then we go back and lose ourselves in a world in which our concerns revolve not around whether we'll have enough to eat tonight or the next, but whether we'll have enough money for the Saab or SUV- or whether we'll have to settle for a Toyota.

True, we have AIDS here, and suffering. But we also have medicines that can treat it and relieve suffering. People in the developed world who have AIDS at least have hope. And our infection rates don't come close to those in sub-Saharan Africa, a place where malaria and dysentery are as common as the cold is here in the United States.

I've looked through my friend's letters. He makes no mention of illness. In Africa, illness and hardship are daily facts of life.

My friend Felix was not a name on a news report from out of Africa. I have a face and a rich set of memories that go along with that name. That's my curse, and my blessing.

Bill Wuhrman

Cochranville © 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.