From Chennai I traveled with C.P. Kumar by train to Nellore, 3 hours north in the state of Andhra Pradesh where CP runs the Little Hearts orphanage for children who have lost their parents due to AIDS. These are children, truly, with nowhere else to go.
C.P. introduces me to the children
Andhra Pradesh is the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in India, with the highest infection rates in the country. Many reasons are attributed to this – Keerthi Bollineni with the AIDS-Awareness NGO Vasavya Mahila Mandali (VMM) tells me that the main causes for the explosion in Andhra Pradesh are:
- The national highways that run straight through the state are the main thoroughfares for the truckers, who frequent prostitutes in the sex trade while on the road, and once infected they carry the virus back to their home villages and families.
- The sex trade in Andhra Pradesh, a mostly rural state with high levels of illiteracy and gender inequality. Girls’ education is not very highly valued here; in fact, girls themselves are often not highly valued.
- Migration trends. In the last decades there has been a huge mass migration from the rural to the urban areas.
Amazingly, as many as 90% of people here who are infected with HIV do not know of their positive status until a calamity occurs – either they fall ill, or for some reason receive a blood test. The stigma of AIDS is very high, and once it is known that a family is affected by HIV/AIDS, being shunned is a common occurence. When children lose their parents to AIDS and are then left on their own, many times their village will refuse to admit them or to care for them due to the stigma. Doctors refuse to treat them, and many cases have been reported in the newspapers of schools and orphanages kicking children out who have been affected by AIDS. Often these children themselves are HIV-negative, but the stigma is still there.
CP Kumar runs Little Hearts orphanage, which was one of the first of its kind in Andhra Pradesh – taking in children who have been orphaned due to AIDS. At Little Hearts, 25 boys and girls live in a very tiny home. There are two small rooms – the boys sleep in one and the girls in another. A very tiny kitchen barely big enough for three people to stand in, and bathrooms on the rooftop. The entire place is about one-third the size of my home – which at 1250 square feet is considered a small house in the United States. The Little Hearts home for 25 children could fit into my living room and office.
I play with some of the children
of Little Hearts Home.
The children living here seem happy, however, to have a home. They attend school right down the street, and CP and his wife Mamatha – along with their own two sons, Prince and Boon – provide a loving family for the kids. CP hears of children who have been orphaned and shunned, with nowhere else to go, and he takes them in. Often a teacher or other local official will bring a child to Little Hearts. In other cases, CP reads about such a situation in the newspaper and contacts the reporter to offer to take in the children.
When I ask CP why he does this, he replies, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”