ZVAVAHERA, Zimbabwe (BP) -- The boy carefully climbs out of the desk and makes his way to the large chalkboard at the front of the classroom. After eyeing his teacher, the 10-year-old, Clive, picks up the piece of chalk and fills in the subtraction problem. It may seem small, but Clive's headmaster and teacher agree he is making remarkable improvements. Just a few months earlier, Clive was spending more time in the clinic than he was in the classroom.
Like many others in the Zimbabwe village of Zvavahera, Clive is HIV-positive. But Clive's battle with HIV began long before he was diagnosed. Before the disease began to consume his own body -- stunting his growth, making him smaller than other boys his age -- it already was shaping his life. In 2007, AIDS took the lives of both Clive's mother and father, recasting the roles of his family and forcing his 16-year-old sister Mercy into the role of primary caregiver.
On their own
"When my parents were still alive, everything was better," Mercy says. "They used to assist us and play their role. When they passed away, things became very difficult for us."
While other children their age come home from school to fully prepared meals, Clive and Mercy begin the race to complete chores before sunset. The balancing act of cleaning the dishes, sweeping the home, finding firewood, fetching water, searching for food, preparing the meal, finishing homework and other tasks often kept them out of school.
In 2011, when Clive received the news he was HIV-positive, he had no idea what it meant, Mercy says.
What began as a few missed days of school soon spiraled into months of illness. The decline in health made it impossible for Clive to make the 7-kilometer walk from home to school.
"Clive used to be in the clinic every week or every month," Evans Thonolana, a nurse at the Zvavahera Clinic, recounts.
On the rare occasions Clive could attend school, his teacher noted that the most he could do was sleep at his desk, unable to even copy notes from the chalkboard onto his paper. Clive's headmaster, Shadreck Makaganise, wondered if the boy would ever recover.
"We once went to see him," Makanganise says. "It was terrible, because we never thought he was going to survive."
Though Clive had medicine, he lacked the one simple thing needed to sustain his life -- food. As Thonoloana explains, many of the symptoms Clive suffered were caused by his not having enough food for his medicine to be effective.
Finding food was nearly impossible for the two children. Extended family could not help, and drought made it difficult to grow crops. The combination forced Mercy and Clive into a desperate situation.
Mercy often skipped school in order to work a neighbor's gardens, in hopes of providing a little extra food for her brother.
"At times when he got sick, I used to cry because I didn't know what to do," Mercy says, her eyes filling with tears. "When he got sick, he used to lose a lot of weight within a few days or so. ... I felt like I was hopeless. I could not improve the situation of my brother."
After a visit to the village of Zvavahera and seeing many in situations like Clive and Mercy, Aaron Mutingwende, orphan care program director for the Baptist Union of Zimbabwe, decided something had to be done. Mutingwende applied for a grant through Baptist Global Response to fund a feeding program in the area. Through that effort, hundreds of HIV/AIDS families have been provided with food.
The life-saving food was provided by the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund.
Every month, around 350 people come to the faded-blue clinic in Zvavahera to receive their food. After weighing in and recording their progress, they fill their plastic sacks with rice, peanut butter, sugar, oil, soap and various goods handed out by volunteers from the local Baptist church. The recipients leave with more than a full bag of food. At every distribution, Thonoloana educates the crowd on HIV care and prevention and Mutingwende encourages them to live the full and abundant life promised by Jesus.
"We have to take care of the needy. We have to take care of the sick," Mutingwende says. "We can't allow people to think just because they are sick we no longer value them. ... They are part of our family, still part of society."
Mutingwende has seen the restoration in both individuals and the community as a result of this food distribution. From bedridden patients now walking to several HIV support groups developing, he says he could have never imagined this type of progress when the first distribution was made in January 2011.
For Clive, even the small changes are reminders of God's mercy. From being able to play outside without getting headaches, to staying awake in class, the simplest signs of progress are monumental victories in the boy's personal battle against HIV.
"They told us about the program and we got very excited," Mercy says, "because it was going to make a big change in our lives."
A life saved
The food Clive received was a catalyst for recovery, soon enabling him to regain strength and re-enter school.
"Now they are attending school every day because some of the problems were solved because of the distribution," Mutingwende notes.
Though he was able to return to school, Clive's illness had taken a toll. Because he had missed so much school, Clive had to be placed in a remedial class. When he first came back to school, his teacher noticed he was unable to complete simple math problems or say the alphabet. Within a matter of months, however, Clive was improving, soon leading his class in completing problems on the board.
Clive's improvements have expanded outside the classroom as well. Though he once struggled to keep friends, he now has plenty of them and often walks to school with two or three.
Time at the clinic no longer consumes Clive's days. Instead, he spends his spare time climbing trees to collect fruit, playing outside with his dog, Cheetah, and helping his sister with household chores. Though he will continue to face the effects of HIV, for the moment he has enough strength to lead the life of a normal 10-year-old boy.
"He used to be very weak before we started receiving food, but now he has greatly recovered," Mercy says. "I am no longer scared when he goes out because I know he has enough strength to come back."
Elizabeth James writes from Johannesburg, South Africa. Learn more about the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund at worldhungerfund.com. World AIDS Day is Saturday, Dec. 1. For information about HIV/AIDS outreach through Baptist Global Response, go to baptistglobalresponse.com. For an interactive view of AIDS-related ministry, go to A Life Restored.
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