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Famine and AIDS: Africa's Twofold Tragedy

Africa is a continent with dueling realities. In one sense, it is a place of unparalleled beauty—one seemingly untouched by the modern world.

The diverse wildlife that roam the vast plains of the Serengeti, the tips of Mount Kilimanjaro that grace the stunning horizon and the sheer enormity of Victoria Falls all speak of Africa's natural splendor.

But a more heartbreaking image exists, that of an African child, skeleton-thin and half-naked, cradled in the arms of his malnourished mother. Too weak to swat the flies that litter his face, he lies deathly still, casting his eyes—pained and vacant—to the sky.

This, too, is Africa. At once, it is a landscape painting in motion—a place so rich in color and grandeur that it seems created by the paintbrush of God. But given its present anguish, Africa seems forsaken by God as well.

HIV and AIDS, famine, drought, war and apathy have all joined forces to rob Africa—and its struggling people—of a future.

Welcome Home

If you were born today in Cape Town, South Africa, because of minimal availability of antiretroviral drugs, you would probably not live to see your 40th birthday. You might be one of the roughly five million people who suffer from HIV and AIDS.

Other countries in Africa fare no better. According to the joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), in Botswana, 323,000 of its 1.7 million people are afflicted with the disease.

In Malawi and Mozambique, experts say that, by the end of this decade, life expectancy will fall to age 40. By that same year, Zimbabwe's life expectancy will plummet to 31 years, and in Swaziland, 30.

Simply put, Africa is ravaged by AIDS. Seventy percent of cases reported worldwide are from Africa, while the United States has less than three percent of the world's cases. To make matters worse, AIDS is joined by an efficient and deadly accomplice: famine.

If you lived in Eritrea, for example, starvation and rainless skies would be as familiar to you as the blistering sun and charred soil. One million of your people—out of more than three million—are on the brink of starvation.

Last May, Stephen Lewis, the UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, spoke of the link between the AIDS crisis and the food shortage before the Global Health Council's conference in Washington, D.C.

"For millions of Africans already infected by HIV, the onset of full-blown AIDS and the rapid descent to death is the inescapable finale of a shortage of food. And the shortage of food, in its turn, opens up new pathways for the virus to spread."

The United States, consequently, has made a monetary pledge, albeit a restrained one. President George W. Bush recently signed into law a plan to donate $15 billion over five years—a figure that critics believe falls short, given Africa's escalating hardships.

Although $15 billion is a good start, it isn't enough, not for a continent as diseased and malnourished as Africa.

‘We Are the World'...Even More

Poverty and disease this extreme are foreign to us. Our country, which is about three tenths the size of the continent of Africa, is touched by AIDS, but we are not crippled by it. We see poverty in our streets, but we are simply not as poor.

Compared to Africa, we live in an affluent society—rich in wealth, in opportunities, in material goods. Although our economy has taken its share of hits, our basic survival is secure.

Granted, we are not without our bruises. In a post-9/11 era, many live in fear of future attacks and the repercussions on our economy and freedom. But Africa is afflicted with its own terrorists: AIDS and starvation—faceless and brutal aggressors that launch devastating attacks every day.

Africa relies greatly on developed nations. The dying Sudanese child, collapsed in his mother's arms, is the wounded man on the other side of the road in need of a good Samaritan. The question is, will we cross the road in empathy or choose to walk on, eyes blinded, hearts hardened?

One Family

As children, we were taught to share. As adults, that message is no less valuable; to the poor, it is no less timely.

There are ways that we can help. Visit Catholic Relief Services at or the Global AIDS Alliance at for information and charitable opportunities.

It is our moral duty as the fortunate to care for those with less. As members of the human family, it is our task to give hope to those in despair.

The song lyrics written to benefit starving Africans in 1985 border on cliché now, but they still have within them a lining of truth: We are, indeed, the world.   —C.H.

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