most people, Ron Dellums had to see a human tragedy before he could
fully grasp its magnitude.
The former congressman was describing how it felt to watch a beautiful
African mother glide like a gazelle to the stage at a Johannesburg
AIDS meeting--with her HIV-infected toddler clasped in her arms.
That's when I remembered something unrelated: the recent newspaper
photo of a Palestinian man trying to shield his son, 12, from bullets
whizzing between Israeli and Palestinian gunmen. Moments later,
the caption stated, the man in the picture lay wounded. His boy--who,
thanks to the photo, felt like everyone's boy--was dead.
I'd stared hard at the record of a healthy, young life instantly
extinguished despite his father's best, frenzied effort. Then I
considered the thousands of similar tragedies in similar skirmishes--between
Serbs and Croats or Tutsis and Hutus or whichever groups, for their
own "good" reasons, are killing each other. I considered how often
I didn't care, simply because I didn't see photos of these people's
Seeing makes all the difference. So when Dellums, the California
Democrat who was the first African American elected in a majority-white
district, recently addressed columnists about the African AIDS crisis,
his mission was to make us see, too. To "burden" us, as he put it,
with truth. "Each of us must assume responsibility for the knowledge
we have," said Dellums, lithe and energetic at 65. "Once we know
something, we are burdened with that knowledge."
Then the question becomes: "What do we do with it?"
If the issue is AIDS, many people's answer is: Try to ignore it.
Forget Africa--AIDS in America is discomfitting enough, with its
images of body fluids, bloody needles and wasted bodies; with our
unspoken questions of "How did he/she get it?" No wonder many people
distance themselves from the virus and its toll.
But we do so at our own peril. AIDS, Dellums stressed, is a "seamless"
scourge that easily crosses every border, unmindful of victims'
nationalities, skin colors or incomes. The staggering statistics:
58 million infected worldwide; 22 million dead (more than half of
them African); nearly 5 million infected in India; about 700,000
reportedly infected in Eastern Europe and Russia. Even an encouraging
Washington Post article about the United Nations' recent announcement
that new cases had declined slightly in Africa cautioned: "The total
picture remains one of a global disaster far greater than was imagined
even a decade ago."
Imaginations are limited. It takes a human face--an aunt, a son,
a smoothly gliding stranger--to make the numbers real. Dellums was
attending a candlelight dinner celebrating the Bristol-Myers Squibb
company's commitment to spend $100 million fighting AIDS in five
African nations when the woman with the dying child was introduced.
"She could not have been more than 19," he recalled, "carrying herself
almost regally--as if she were struggling to transcend all of this.
. . . There wasn't a dry eye in the room."
Dellums learned of African employers who hire three people to fill
one job--because at least one new employee is sure to die. He saw
tiny children living in the streets because they're among the more
than 10 million African youngsters orphaned by AIDS. He saw students
whose teachers were dying too quickly for schools to replace them,
and kids who had abandoned their studies to nurse dying parents.
Each victim, Dellums realized, "was replicated in the millions."
Being burdened with such horrors triggers a reaction: "You go to
your hotel room, you cry," Dellums said. Then you realize, "crying
won't get it . . . "
He told himself, "I'm an activist. . . . And what the issue needed
was someone to start screaming."
Like a firebrand who began his 27-year congressional stint as an
anti-Vietnam flamethrower and ended it as the respected former chairman
of the powerful Armed Services Committee. Today, Dellums said, "I
don't have to be intelligent on several hundred issues as in Congress."
By presiding over Healthcare International Management Co., which
provides AIDS services to Africa, "I can focus almost laserlike
on the issue, which literally has taken over my life."
The burden of knowing about AIDS's devastation in Africa needn't
be so consuming. Citizens of a prosperous nation can urge their
elected representatives to embrace debt relief to destitute African
nations, several of which spend more repaying America for their
past leaders' loans than on feeding and educating their own citizens.
By telling their representatives that they don't want AIDS to turn
humanity's cradle into its coffin, Americans can pass the burden--to
the politicians whom they elected to make the world a better place.
Said Dellums, who should know:
"One letter alone, multiplied by a lot of others, can have an impact."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company