Many of you will be surprised that I'm writing about this. But it's a story I need to tell.
If you're young or squeamish, feel free to skip to another entry.
I've traveled a lot this week. Covered about half of Morocco. So when I say that you don't know where this girl lives, I mean it. She's just a Moroccan Girl. MG...let's call her Meg, which isn't a remotely Arabic or Berber name, so you know it can't be her real one.
I met her during my travels. I was staying with a PCV, as I nearly always do when I leave my home village. While we were cooking, "Meg" knocked on the door. My friend went down and let her in. Meg came into the kitchen and greeted me with a kiss on each cheek, as is common between women here. She looked to be about high school age, with an open face and a big smile that didn't reach her eyes. Any idiot could tell that she was distraught, and wanted to confide in my friend. They went off to talk while I did the dishes. Slowly.
I've worked with young people for several years, so I thought through the possible sources of teenage trauma. When my friend came in, to get tissues and tangerines, I asked, "Is she pregnant?" My friend didn't answer. "Boyfriend mean to her?"
"Don't I wish," she muttered as she went back. That gave me pause. I finished up the dishes and went into the living room. I'd thought that they were out on the balcony, so I was startled to see them in there. I hesitated at the door, but didn't see any response from them, so I just went to the farthest sofa and began reading a magazine. They were speaking in a dialect unfamiliar to me, so it was easy to tune them out, and give them emotional, if not physical, privacy.
A few minutes later, my friend left the room again. My silent, page-flipping presence began to feel rude, so I set down the Newsweek and looked up at her. She'd been crying for some time, so I said the obvious thing: "Meskina" (you poor thing, more or less). She smiled wanly.
And then, without preamble or apology, she brought me into her confidence.
She pointed to herself, and said one word: "SIDA."
What Americans know as AIDS.
The blood drained from my face. I crossed the room to sit with her. I was prompted by two motives, actually; part was just empathy, wanting to hold the hand of someone in pain...but the other was the knowledge that AIDS carriers are often shunned, physically and in every other way, and I wanted her to know that not everyone would recoil from her now.
I struggled to communicate with Meg. I asked her how she'd gotten it; she said she didn't know. I asked when she'd found out, since all the signs indicated that it was a new discovery. Slowly, with remarkable patience for my poor ability with her dialect, she explained. "Last week." I tried to reconcile that with the shock she was showing. But she wasn't finished, just taking the time to ensure that I understood her. "Doctors came to my school to take blood. You know 'blood'?" she asked, checking for my comprehension.
"Idammin, eyyah," I replied, nodding. SIDA testing is being encouraged by various ministries and NGOs, including Peace Corps, but I was surprised to hear it was being done in high schools.
"For the Palestinians," she continued. And suddenly I got it. It was a blood drive, not a testing round, meant to benefit the thousands of injured in Gaza. I donated blood after 9/11, for much the same reason. The Red Cross - or more likely, the Red Crescent - must be making the rounds of Moroccan villages, asking for tangible help for the Palestinians. And Meg had volunteered to give her blood to those suffering. "Then, yesterday," she went on, "The doctor came to tell me--" and she was interrupted by sobs. The Red Cross and similar organizations routinely test all donated blood for AIDS and other pathogens, and in the unlikely event of a positive result, provide the information to the donor.
I consoled her. When she seemed calm again, I asked her how old she was.
Seventeen. A kid. A sweet kid, who does well in school and had a bright and shining future in front of her...until yesterday.
Later on, I got to see her interacting with her peers and friends. She laughed, played, danced, teased... Her broad cheeks lend themselves to her ready smiles. She loves music. She's generous - she invited my friend and me to her house for dinner, which she'd prepared for us. She's working hard in high school, studying French and English as well as the regular curriculum, hoping to go to university soon. Though girls here often marry by her age, she's only had one boyfriend - who she swears she only ever kissed - and has never traveled, though she hopes to.
She could have contracted the virus in many ways. She might have been born with it; she lost a parent to SIDA about five years ago. She might have caught it at home, maybe tending an injury. She may have lied about her boyfriend, and acquired it from him. She could have been infected it at a hospital; believe it or not, Moroccan hospitals ask patients to provide their own syringes for vaccinations or other shots. If you don't buy your own at a local hanoot, they'll use one they have on hand, regardless of how many times it's been used before. There's a common belief here that washing needles, especially if you use chlorine, kills all germs and bacteria.
But regardless of how it was given to her, it's hers to carry now.
And I suddenly realized how little I know. I've sat through countless lectures and trainings, so I can recite all the vectors, the risky behaviors, etc, etc. I know how not to get it, and how to teach that information to others. But until that moment, I hadn't realized that I have no idea what happens once that threshold is crossed. I don't know if the triple cocktail of AIDS medications are commonly available in Morocco, let alone rural Morocco. I don't know how much they cost here (it varies by country). I don't know what the life expectancy is with the drugs. I don't know what it is without the drugs. I've never known anyone personally who had HIV or AIDS - or if I did, they didn't tell me.
Really, all I know is that this sweet, funny, happy girl is facing a future that's suddenly terrifying, bleak, and short.
Update: "Meg" recently confided to my friend that three years ago, during a family celebration, some of her male cousins got drunk and raped her. We have no way of knowing for certain that this was the moment when she contracted SIDA, but it seems likely. So she's not only a 17-year-old with SIDA; she's also been an incest survivor since the age of 14.
I ... I have no more words.