Aids – I Die, but My Memory Lives on

In Uganda AIDS had a rate of over 30% of years ago. If we hear a number that sounds so objectively. That is not at all. The incredible range of 2.6 million orphans in Uganda (approximately 7% of the population) and a current average age of 14.6 years in Uganda, which are only numbers.

The current AIDS rate is 7.6%. What a compelling change through education and appropriate structures!

A part of what the term means even beyond the numbers, opens up while reading a book by Henning Mankell. But careful, Henning Mankell writes realistic and the book will touch you.

As the Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell traveled over Africa, he discovered Memory Books usually written by parents infected with AIDS for their children. In this slim but powerful volume he says that he read 30 of them. He has chosen to include here the memory book of a highly literate nurse left for her son Peter Kanyi. She reminds him of her family’s traditions and values– that he should respect his elders, support the needy and work hard to make a living. She closes her letter to him by declaring how much she loves him and instructs him to “keep away from AIDS.”

Mr. Mankell writes his own commentary– interwoven with the nurse’s words– of how he got involved in the memory book project, some of his own fears and close escapes with death, the role that racism plays in the AIDS struggle in Africa, the myths about the disease– that you can be cured by having intercourse with a virgin– the greed of the drug companies. And he writes of persons he met, most notably Christine, a teacher infected with AIDS, and her daughter Aida who plants a mango tree, such a beautiful symbol of hope, in the–as Christine says so eloquently– the mess of AIDS in Uganda. Her exact words: “‘Death always makes a mess of things, no matter when it comes.'” Mr. Mankell also introduces us to Moses who has written 15 books, one for each of his children and grandchildren.

What resonates on every page of I DIE BUT MY MEMORY LIVES ON is the humanity of Mr. Mankell– one gets that from reading his novels but it is a consolation to have it affirmed here– and the dignity with which the people he writes about face sickness and death. “Being illiterate is not the same thing as being devoid of dignity,” he says. Mr. Mankell tells a true story to Christine and her daughter Aida that occurred during the civil war in Mozambique in 1990. There he met a man, perhaps 19 or 20, whose clothes were in tatters. He was barefoot but he had painted shoes on his feet to show that he was a human being with dignity. “I learned that we should all be aware that there could come a day when we too will have to paint shoes onto our feet.” Of course this is the same writer who has a character in a novel say that every friendship is a miracle.

The Memory Book Project invites comparison with the Names Project, the brain child of Clive Jones in San Francisco in 1987, that has now mushroomed from a single panel to a quilt that covers six city blocks. Although different in many ways– the quilt panels are made by family and friends of those who have died of AIDS– both projects strive to keep alive the memories of the fallen.

If you think you cannot read yet another book about AIDS, this one may surprise you. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another great humanitarian, writes in a foreword that by “encouraging parents to recall their life stories, not just for their children, but also for humanity, Henning Mankell has given a great gift to the world.” Indeed he has.