I Am My Brother's Keeper

I Am My Brother's Keeper

By: Janet Root, Senior Staff Writer   |   Posted: September 20, 2003

Kebede is the guardian for his AIDS-orphaned nephew, Dejene, as well as the 11-year-old's eight siblings. They are living the nightmare of millions of extended African families  stretched to the breaking point because of AIDS. But this family has a ray of hope: Dejene's Compassion sponsorship.

Editor's note: Children orphaned by AIDS, subject to ridicule and stigmatization, are on the rise in Compassion Ethiopia's program. Janet Root traveled to Ethiopia on an AIDS* fact-finding trip for Compassion in the fall of 2002 where she interviewed Kebede  the guardian for his AIDS-orphaned nephew, Dejene, and the boy's eight siblings. This is Kebede's story.

"Sometimes I can't sleep at night," says Kebede, his voice cracking. "I think about how I don't have any money to feed my children."

We are in a remote village in central Ethiopia and this tall, slender man  with the worn features of someone much older than his 30 years  is quietly telling his story. "Even more than losing my brother, who was like a father to me," he continues, brushing the tears from his dark eyes, "supporting his children is more painful."

Kebede is referring to the brother who, following his death from AIDS-related causes, left nine children in Kebede's care about six years ago. Yet, unlike many AIDS-affected families in Africa, this one hasn't lost its primary provider.

Kebede hasn't abandoned his wife, his 3-year-old son or his brother's nine children. Even though the 1,700 Birr (approximately U.S.$200) he earns a month trading grain is not nearly enough to sustain the family of 12. He is also determined to beat AIDS by remaining faithful to his wife.

And there's another hopeful element to this story: Kebede's nephew, 11-year-old Dejene, is registered in Compassion Ethiopia's sponsorship program.

JR: Tell me about the loss of your brother and his wife. How do you cope with caring for their nine children?

K: I'm depressed to see them sad, especially when I compare them to the neighbors' children who have clothes, and I can't provide food. I used to. (Kebede lowers his head and begins to weep.) I used to buy the children clothes for the holidays and food. I can't do the same as their father.

JR: Have you told the children about the cause of their parents' death?

K: No. They're too young. I don't want them to think that they're inferior. When they get older, I'll talk to them. I just don't want them to think that God has cursed them.

JR: What do people in your community say about AIDS? And do the children experience any rejection from your neighbors?

K: I tell my friends that they must be faithful to their partners. But they don't believe it (AIDS) is real. Even the doctors didn't tell me that my brother and sister-in-law died from AIDS; I think it was to prevent us from suffering with the stigma. But I've researched the literature, and I know they had all of the symptoms. I've lost my brother, my sister-in-law and two friends to this disease. It is real.

Sometimes other kids taunt my children, saying: "Your father died from AIDS!" I comfort them and tell them it doesn't mean anything and that they must be strong.

JR: Have you noticed a difference in Dejene since he started the Compassion program after his parents died?

K: Oh, yes! (Kebede nods his head vigorously.) Dejene's in school regularly. He used to get sick a lot before he was registered, but now he's healthy. And our family receives some extra food  grains, cooking oil  plus soap and hair oil. 

His sponsors send him many gifts. (Kebede's thin face creases with a smile for the first time in the interview.) They provided a goat for his birthday. I think of them as Dejene's parents.

With the support he gets and by God's will, Dejene will make it. I have a strong hope and belief in his future!

* Because of HIV/AIDS' social stigma, it is Compassion's policy not to disclose the full names of children and their family members who are associated with our program and affected by the disease.

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