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AIDS orphan trying to prevent more of them in Africa

By ERICA JAHN

Staff writer

Thirteen million children in Africa are orphans because their parents died of AIDS. Princess Kasune Zulu, now a 26-year-old, HIV-positive mom, was one of them.

To combat the spread of a disease that is destroying families like hers in Africa, Zulu has joined with World Vision, a humanitarian aid organization headquartered in Federal Way, for a 15-city U.S. tour to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS.

Zulu’s father was a senior superintendent for the Zambia Rail Line and her mother worked as a government secretary. “We had a nice life before my parents died,” she said.

A baby sister died before her parents began showing symptoms of the disease, but they didn’t know then she probably died of AIDS.

Zulu’s mother was the next to get sick.

“She told me, ‘Princess, I want you to be strong for your family,’” she said. “I didn’t know why, but I knew she was dying.”

Soon after her mom died, her father became ill. Because caring for sick family members generally falls to the eldest daughter, Zulu carried him on her back to the nearest clinic, which rarely had enough medication to treat its patients.

“It didn’t take long. My dad also died,” she said. “That was the beginning of a new life.”

She was 14.

Like many orphans, she married at a young age “in order to survive,” she said.

Her oldest brother died of AIDS last year. Another older brother works as a miner in Africa, and a younger brother is working in the United States. She also has a younger sister.

Because women in Zambia have to get permission from their husbands to get HIV testing, Zulu had to persistently ask her reluctant husband if she could get the test.

“Women are not usually in a position to negotiate with marriage set-ups,” she said.

He finally relented and she was tested. Then he was. His employer fired him when they learned he was HIV-positive.

Their two daughters –– Joy, 8, and Faith, 7 –– have tested negative for the disease.

Zulu said her life isn’t unique or unusual. “My story echoes 13 million other orphans,” she said.

World Vision launched the AIDS awareness campaign, called the Hope Initiative, to educate the world about AIDS in Africa. Zulu joined to raise awareness about the disease and to encourage support for the millions of orphaned children.

Twenty percent of the Zambian population — 10 million people — are HIV-positive, she said. Thirteen million of the world’s 14 million AIDS orphans live in Africa. Twenty-nine million people in Africa are infected with the AIDS virus. That’s more than half of the 42 million people infected with AIDS worldwide.

Every day, 8,000 people worldwide die of AIDS.

Africa’s cities are hot zones for the virus, Zulu said. Orphaned children from outlying rural areas “will run into the cities and become street children. They have nowhere to go and they beg for food,” she said. Some turn to prostitution to make money or get something to eat, and the disease is spreading prolifically.

“We need to help these young people, not just to keep them from becoming infected, but also to keep them safe,” she said. “It’s not just taking children and sticking them in a place. We need to show them love and to help them.”

World Vision president Richard Stearns said the biggest misconception he’s heard about the virus is it’s a disease that afflicts gay men and intravenous drug users. That’s not the case, he said, but added it wouldn’t matter to World Vision if it was.

“The most common misconception I run into is people thinking it’s a homosexual disease. In Africa, it’s 97 to 98 percent transmitted heterosexually. The majority are women who have been infected,” he said. “We need to express compassion to all people, regardless of how they got the disease. It doesn’t matter. We’re called to show compassion.

“This is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. Our message is simple: We need to do something, as a nation, as individuals, as churches — whatever our sphere of influence.”

Zulu said the work of non-governmental agencies has been instrumental in raising awareness and providing relief to those who are sick in Africa — but added there is a lot of work yet to do.

“Our government really appreciates non-governmental organizations. Our government doesn’t have the capacity to help,” she said. “NGOs are the ones providing employment, building clinics and shelters and schools. They’re doing what the government should be doing. But, at the same time, it’s too big for NGOs to do alone.”

Staff writer Erica Jahn: 925-5565, ejahn@fedwaymirror.com

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