Cherlopalem: Face of the Future

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans
and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is
wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy
name of liberty and democracy?” -Mahatma Gandhi

As I have written in previous posts, the Indian AIDS epidemic is destroying entire families and communities. In “The Missing Face of AIDS” I wrote about Vambay Colony in Andhra Pradesh and the all-too-common legacy AIDS has left there: grandparents supporting their orphaned grandchildren, and the other way around. In “Children Overflowing” I wrote about C.P. Kumar’s Little Hearts home for children who have been orphaned by AIDS.

There are more children living in India today with HIV-positive parents than children already orphaned. If far more drastic action is not taken to halt this catastrophe, the numbers alone tell us that the worst impact on children is yet to come.

The face of India’s future if it fails this battle lies in a small village called Cherlopalem in rural Andhra Pradesh. Not long after I returned home from India at the end of March, C.P. told me about this village that has been the subject of newspaper and television stories. Cherlopalem is home to 30 families of the Dalit or “untouchable” caste, a farming community surrounded by lush green fields that now stand empty. Three-fourths of the residents have been affected by AIDS. Seven people have died within the past eight months and dozens more are in the last stages, leaving many children behind without any sort of supervision.

A woman in newspaper article holds
a photo of her son who died of AIDS.

On April 8 the Eenadu newspaper reported, “The village, known for its hardworking lifestyle, is now ravaged by a cureless malady.” One infected woman who had been shown on a television newscast was so shamed she subsequently stopped eating or taking her medications, and soon died. The article accused officials of doing nothing. The remaining residents confessed that they knew nothing about the “dreaded disease.” They do not know how it transmits or what precautions will protect them.

Cherlopalem is a microcosm of the ability of AIDS to unravel the social fabric of entire communities. It is clear that a failure to address the looming crisis in India will have dire consequences for the country, its children and the world for generations to come. That we can know this and yet do nothing is, as Stephen Lewis of the United Nations put it, “mass murder by complacency.” A childhood cannot wait for the AIDS epidemic to subside, for poverty to be eradicated, for adults and governments to act, for the world to notice them. We wonder why generations before us didn’t speak up as entire peoples were kidnapped from their home countries and enslaved. We ask how the world could have stood by and allowed six million Jews to be exterminated in the Holocaust. How will we answer when our children ask what we did while millions were orphaned by AIDS?


Update: Divine Children’s Home

In mid-March in the southern state of Kerala – a lush, beautiful state known for its commitment to education and nearly 100% literacy rate among both boys and girls – I visited a special place called Divine Children’s Home.

Alice, me, and the children of DCH

Like so many incredible people I have met providing homes to children – Caroline, Papa, Manjeet, C.P. – DCH was started with a chance encounter that changed the course of a life. In 2000, Alice Thomas lost her husband in a car accident. Devastated, Alice struggled to make ends meet and to care for her two children alone. One day her job as a teacher at the local jail took an unexpected turn when a prostitute handed her baby over to Alice. Knowing that the child had no place else to go, Alice took him in.

Soon other people learned about it and began bringing other children to Alice. Once a mother of two, Alice is now mother to 29 children. She calls them “boarding children” because she feels that to call them orphans stigmatizes them. All she wants is for them to have a normal and happy life.

I visited Alice and her beautiful children in their very small home in Trivandrum. Alice and the home’s manager, Paul, explained to me their hopes and plans for building a new home on land that DCH owns – a plan that will allow them to accommodate twice as many children as well as build a library, clinic, kitchen and prayer room. They hope to begin construction in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, the new school session starts in three weeks. As always, Alice tells me that it is extremely difficult to find a way to cover the new expenses for uniforms, shoes, books and school fees. “However, I am sure god will see us through, just like he’s taken care of us till now,” she says.

If you would like to learn more about Divine Children’s Home or send an encouraging email or donation to Alice, please click here.

About Shelley Seale

Shelley is a wanderer and student of the world, yoga chick, voracious reader and dog lover. She pounds the keyboard as a freelance writer, author and publication designer, based in Austin, Texas when she isn't traipsing around the globe. Shelley has written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian, The Week, Fodor's, The Telegraph and Texas Monthly, among others. Shelley has performed a catch on the flying trapeze, boarded down a live volcano, and was once robbed by a monkey in India. But she doesn’t know how to whistle.

Posted on May 3, 2007, in AIDS, children, India, shelley seale and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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