Over a decade ago I was a naive undergraduate on my first day in Africa; a hot Monday in a township near Harare, Zimbabwe. I was watching a group of primary school children play together noisily in the red dusty street. One child was not playing. Tibi sat alone in the dust, wrapping yarn from his jumper round and round his slender fingers. It was a dark green knitted jumper, seemingly too thick for that day’s burning sun, covered with holes, worn with his white shirt and grey schoolboy shorts. Large, dark, hollow eyes, that caught and held mine. His eyes betrayed hardship and grief; here was a child who had seen and suffered too much at a young age. But they also offered a glimpse into his resilience, the spark and the humour I came to admire.
Not long afterwards Tibi tested positive for HIV. He was one of the thousands of children in Zimbabwe born with the virus, many of whom, like him, were orphaned at a tender age. By the time of Tibi’s diagnosis antiretroviral drugs were effective and available and should have allowed him to live a relatively normal life. But while global pharmaceutical companies waged wars to protect their patents, these drugs remained inaccessible to children like Tibi for many years to come.
Tibi was a courageous child and his courage touched the lives of many. He defied the odds stacked against him; unusually for a child born with HIV he survived childhood and completed school. His abundance of willpower and positive spirit generated only love and admiration, not pity. As a teenager he embraced the opening up of new technology in Zimbabwe; a couple of years ago I was amused but not surprised to see him appear on Facebook. Shamelessly bombarding me with requests for the latest Liverpool FC shirts or iPods, social media gave him a window to share his journey with the world.
Tibi wrote to me a few days ago, now a young man of 20, telling me that he was shivering, wrapped in blankets but unable to get warm. Sharp pains, the legacy of years of untreated tuberculosis, were racking his fragile chest, his breaths now a series of gasps. This morning I received word from Zimbabwe that he passed away last night, the virus finally claiming victory over his ravaged body.
During the last four years of his life he was taking antiretroviral drugs; medicine that should have prolonged and improved his life significantly. But for Tibi the drugs came too late and were unable to prevent the advancement of the virus. Had he been born into a different world, in a country not in a spiral of economic and political decline, his fate may have been different. Tibi was the victim of his circumstances; a stark reminder that national and global systems have failed a generation of children. These children are Zimbabwe’s lost generation.
One of Tibi’s friends left a message on his Facebook wall this morning. His words say what I want to say, far better than I can:
You fought for life from the day you were born; you befriended it and lived every moment like it was a privilege. You were a humble guy, a respectful friend, and a brave and courageous young man. The Lord will look upon you with kindness. Sleep well in God’s arms, my brother.