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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Where Life Is Too Short

Africa, South Africa

The strangest thing about my adopted home community in South Africa is the number of establishments selling tombstones in town. It seems the shop names are meant to be optimistic: Paradise Tombstones; Eternal Flame Tombstones. The sign "Town Tombstones" looms large over the main drag, Danie Joubert Street. The billboard is hand-painted, an enormous gray elephant's head stretching the length of the sign, with red, green, and yellow lettering: African-style death. The town boasts a three-story building calling itself a mall, and just in the center, on the second floor, is Perpetuity Tombstones. Its window displays are like any other store's, but instead of half-price sneakers or polyester pants, Perpetuity Tombstones displays—what else?—demo tombstones. Eerily enough, the window displays sale placards: "Buy Now! Pay Later!"

In the right-hand window, posed at an angle to entice customers, is a model plot with a headstone engraved, "Thabo Mafuna, beloved brother, son, 11 January 1974–22 July 2003." To the left of the door, "Florence Tseka, always remembered, 13 April 1969–20 September 2002." Plastic flower arrangements adorn vases of white stone. But unlike the demand for sneakers and trousers, tombstone demand is a grim, need-driven business.

Where I'm from, in New Hampshire, Main Street commerce is a grocery, a hardware store, a Dunkin' Donuts franchise, and a pharmacy—a decidedly benign retail environment. I'm an American in South Africa and no matter how long I live here, I'll never grow accustomed to seeing tombstone shops filled with customers, and I'll never find it easy to accept that burials are the most lucrative business in town.

Only recently did I pause outside the shop and note the dates on the sample headstones: 1974–2003, 1969–2002. Those two invented individuals would have died at ages 29 and 33. That must be my American eye; according to global health indicators, I can expect to live until the ripe old age of 83. Apparently, in the Northern Province of South Africa, we're meant to accept that a human life ending at 30 is normal.

I find myself living in a country with the largest HIV/AIDS population in the world. The southern part of Africa remains the worst affected subregion in the world, with data in some areas showing HIV prevalence surpassing 25 percent, having risen sharply from around 5 percent in 1990. As a country, South Africa continues to have the highest number of people living with HIV in the world. An estimated 5.3 million people here were living with HIV at the end of 2003—2.9 million of them, women. Of South Africa's nine provinces, ours—the Limpopo Province—is combating an epidemic of HIV/AIDS. In the rural villages, where the disease is spreading like wildfire, people know of AIDS, but they don't speak of it. They don't want to know their status because a positive diagnosis may bring rejection and ostracism. Family members in the advanced stages of the disease may be relegated to the fringes of the community, if they are not chased from the village. Those who are allowed to stay are often neglected at home because of the stigma or simply because the enormous burden of caring for an AIDS patient cripples the family's already meager resources. Most people won't get proper, if any, medical treatment. Just the word—AIDS—causes family and community members feelings of shame. A loved one's death is euphemistically called "natural," and village people attend to the burial ceremonies as though nothing were unusual about a 30-year-old man or woman dying of "natural causes." And that's the crux of the crisis: There's nothing unusual about it anymore.

The rural poor of South Africa's villages attend more funerals in a single weekend than I've attended in my entire 27 years. I know. I live here. And on weekends, I've tied a scarf around my hair to stand in the cemetery with my African friends, the only white face among hundreds. There is song and ceremony; we women leave early, just as the men queue up to shovel earth on the grave. We make our rounds to the homes of the deceased, helping to prepare the feasts. We bake biscuits and stir black iron pots of maize-meal; chickens are plucked and boiled; traditional beer and spirits are brewed. The life departed may be recognized and celebrated. But to me, something feels deeply wrong about celebrating a life so short.

I came to South Africa in July 2003. Just weeks before I left home, my family buried my maternal grandfather, Alvin Palmer Dell, who left behind two children and five grandchildren—after 88 rich years. My cousins and my brother and I—ranging in age from 21 to 33 years—had our grandfather in our lives into adulthood. We miss him too much, forever in our minds a gray, crinkled, beloved old man. Our parents and grandmother knew a different man and a longer life—the young father; the homemaker; the breadwinner; the retiree collecting antiques with his wife of 62 years. I'm comforted every day to know this: His life was long and full and complete, blessed with not only people, but time.

My grandfather lived long enough to hear of my plans to go to Africa. I miss him especially these days in my adopted town in South Africa because I know that, in his old-fashioned sensibilities, he would have thought me slightly wild and crazy to come here. And he might have spouted and sputtered about his first granddaughter doing unimaginable things, squandering a college education, always running off to another corner of the world. And then he would have wiped tears of laughter from his crinkled eyes and said of me what he said of my mother the last time I saw him, "That girl, she can do anything."

I'm a Volunteer with the Peace Corps in South Africa, and one in every four people I meet is likely to die of AIDS before the decade is out. Those who don't die will be left behind: children without parents, mothers burying adult children—lives that might have been long and full, but were unrealized.

Last month, I spent the day at a Catholic mission, holding and playing with children who were soon to be orphaned. Their mothers were dying in adjoining rooms. I visited with one woman and, to my utter horror, held the hand of her emaciated body—so weak, she hardly knew I was there and hadn't the strength to close her eyelids—as she lay just countable hours from death. If death loomed that near, she didn't deserve to see horror on my face. I forced the most painful and difficult smile I've ever forced because this is a human being, not a statistic. And her three-year-old daughter in the other room, also HIV-positive, is a human being, as well.

This is not the grief I experience with my grandfather. His death is an aching absence, but one that aligns with what I know to be right and normal in life. I grieve and I accept it. But I simply do not accept the impending death of 5.3 million HIV-positive South Africans. These people may not have names to us. But they have names, and stories, and families, and they might—in another world—have had a granddaughter to write about their lives. But they are dying too young for that, and they are leaving their own babies behind, not grandchildren. There is nothing normal or right about it.

Poverty often breeds ignorance and crime and violence. I ask you to consider why, on the world's most resource-rich continent, people are so desperately poor. This is not our "fault," but it is our responsibility to ask questions and to pay attention. Most of all, consider what we so often fail to remember: These are our people. These are our people because we share with them the same hopes in our lives: for freedom from disease, for education of our children, for safety from violence, for economic opportunity, for spiritual fulfillment, for a secure and meaningful future. These are our people, but this is their fight. What can you do today to help put the thriving burial industry out of business? If all you do on any given day is remember that they are here, that's more than you did yesterday. Let's not let our people down. 

World Wise Speakers

Invite a Peace Corps volunteer into your classroom to share what it's like to live a global life by sharing stories, cultures and knowledge.