I’m devastated. Today I learned that my dear little Esperance* – the absolutely adorable and most precocious 3-year-old at Panzi hospital – is HIV positive. With a smile that charms all who meet her and a personality that by far out sizes her toddler frame, she now runs to meet me when I arrive. We’ve become good buddies, likely because I indulge her every request for “photo!” and “bombo” (candy). She is truly irresistible.
It was a punch in the gut this morning when one of the staff informed me of little Esperance’s status. My entire day was a blur and every time she visited me in between interviews of the women, it was all I could do to hold it together. She is so full of energy and mischief; it’s difficult for me to believe she has this dreaded virus. I met her mother only yesterday, one of my interviewees. I had no idea Nsimire* was her mother until Esperance crawled up into her lap. Nsimire’s story is tragic beyond imagination and I will spare the details. She (25 years old although she looks to be 40) is a rape and torture survivor who is now HIV positive. She was attacked in 2004 by the FDLR and again in 2008 by Nkunda’s men. Esperance is the precious gift from this tragedy.
Like so many other women I have met, Nsimire has no one. She is at Panzi for treatment of a fistula, her HIV, and other injuries. Since arriving, she has once tried to commit suicide. Esperance likely contracted HIV from her mother either during the pregnancy, delivery, or from breastfeeding. In Congo, the estimated number of children (ages 0-15) living with HIV/AIDS in 2007 was 37,000 – 52,000. About 90 percent of these children are infected through mother-to-child transmission. The overall prevalence of HIV in Congo in 2008 was estimated at 4.1 percent. Unfortunately, Nsimire and Esperance did not have access to adequate health care. Had Nsimire been diagnosed and treated early on, the chances of her transmission of the virus to her daughter would have only been 2 percent.
Every day I visit Nsimire, and she seems to enjoy my company. Far from despondent, she is quite engaged as we sit in the courtyard and try to converse. She has had some schooling and knows a bit of English. I told her she looks like a 1940s movie star. It’s something about how she does her hair which is quite different from the traditional braided styles. Nsimire is the only woman, out of the 30 I interviewed, who said that “learning” is something that gives her happiness. We’ve exchanged addresses as she says she wants to write. Her address, for now, is Panzi. But that will change June 25 when she is scheduled to be discharged. She has nowhere to go.
I wish I could show you photos of little Esperance. But to protect her privacy, I cannot. I know if you saw her, you couldn’t help but smile. She would like that.
Lee Ann De Reus is the 2009 recipient of the Carl Wilkens Fellowship, given by Genocide Intervention Network, and an associate professor of Human Development & Family Studies and Women’s Studies at Penn State Altoona. She is currently in Bukavu, South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she is conducting interviews with survivors of sexual violence. This is the third in a series of posts.