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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Where Life Is Too Short

Africa, South Africa
Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12
Environment, Health, Science

Students will come away from this lesson beginning to understand the impact and implications of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa and beyond.


After studying the letter and engaging in activities, students should be able to explain

  • How the AIDS pandemic is affecting multiple aspects of life in South Africa.
  • Why life expectancies differ dramatically among nations.
  • Why events in different parts of the world affect us in the United States.


 Note to teacher: This may be a difficult letter for students because of the subject matter. Use discretion. You may want to give an alternate assignment to any student who wishes to be excused, or who has had a close relative or friend with HIV or AIDS.

  1. Ask students to brainstorm what they already know about South Africa. They will probably be able to describe its location, and may be able to talk about the history of apartheid, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, and the creation of modern South Africa. Be sure they are aware that although South Africa is the wealthiest country in Africa and is modern in many ways, many South Africans are desperately poor. Gross national income per capita was $2,780 per year in South Africa, compared with $37,610 in the United States, according to the World Bank. Show South Africa on a large map of Africa, or distribute copies of the map listed in "Materials."
  2. On the chalkboard or an overhead, draw a web diagram and label as shown. Explain that South Africa is experiencing a pandemic. Define "pandemic" as an epidemic that has spread over a wide geographical area. The pandemic is HIV/AIDS. Tell students that one in four citizens of South Africa is HIV-positive today, i.e., carrying HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus.

    Divide students into six groups. Ask each group to brainstorm for a few minutes how such a pandemic would affect each of the topics you have drawn on the web. Have one student come up from each group to add information to the web. Examples of the information they might come up with:

    Education: There might not be enough teachers; resources that could go to schools might be diverted to healthcare; children might have to drop out of school if their parents become sick.
    Family: Family would have the burden of caring for sick family members; increasing number of orphans; fear of relatives who were sick; additional burden on women, who generally are caretakers for the sick.
    Economy: Cost of medicine for so many sick people who are poor is prohibitive; not enough healthy people to work in factories or to plant fields, so economy would suffer.
    Government: Pressure on government to solve problems; fewer adults able to vote; hard to continue other government programs like education; some officials might also become ill.
    Health facilities: Not enough doctors and nurses; too many patients at overcrowded hospitals; no room for people with other illnesses; not enough medicine; psychological hardship for medical personnel.
    International relations: Turning to United Nations and developed countries for assistance; lessening of international trade and commerce; less tourism from outside the country.
    Try to elicit the conclusion that a medical crisis such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic affects every aspect of society.
  3. Introduce Allison Howard by giving biographical information about her and describing the work she is doing in South Africa (from the biography link, above). Distribute her first letter from South Africa, "Where Life Is Too Short." Caution students that this will be a troubling letter.
  4. Have students read the letter silently. Then discuss the following as a class:
    • How closely did your hypotheses about a pandemic match the reality that Allison describes in her letter?
    • How does she show her emotions in this letter?
    • Why does Allison discuss her grandfather in this letter? How does she use his life to make her point about life (and death) in South Africa?
    • What does the term life expectancy mean? Why does life expectancy in wealthy countries differ from life expectancy in poor countries?
    • Review current events in a key area of the world, such as the war in Iraq. How does such a distant event affect our daily lives in the United States? [Examples: rise in the price of oil; American soldiers are sent overseas in large numbers; worries about terrorism.]
    • What do you think is Allison's primary argument for Americans caring about the HIV/AIDS problem in Africa? [It's probably one of humanitarian caring; as she says, "these are our people" because they share the same hopes and dreams we have.] How could events in South Africa affect citizens in the United States? [Examples: economically, through reduced exports from South Africa; politically, through growing social instability?street orphans, crime, and violence?in an important world ally; financially, through the cost of international assistance programs to treat the sick and trying to thwart the pandemic.]
    • What does Allison want her readers to do about this crisis in South Africa? Find evidence in the letter to support your point of view.

Frameworks & Standards

 Enduring Understandings
  • HIV/AIDS is rampant on the African continent and is having a devastating effect on the population.
  • Life expectancies differ dramatically among nations.
  • Poverty and sickness in a distant area of the world affect each of us.
Essential Questions
  • What effects does a disease such as HIV/AIDS have on a society? On individuals?
  • What factors determine life expectancy in a country? Why do life expectancies vary so dramatically among nations?
  • What can we do about HIV/AIDS in a distant country? In our own country?

National Science Education Standards
Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives 



  1. Toward the end of her letter, Allison writes: "I ask you to consider why, on the world's most resource-rich continent, people are so desperately poor." Have students research possible answers to this question, using what they have learned in their classes to date and outside resources. What organizations (besides the Peace Corps) are working to alleviate poverty in other countries?
  2. If students are engaged in service learning projects, help them locate projects that address international poverty. 
  3. Use the information gained in Allison's letter and this lesson for the foundation of a persuasive essay or a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.
  4. Research life expectancies of different racial and gender groups within the United States. How significant are the differences? To what causes might these differences be attributed?
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