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The girl who would be Queen

Queen died today. That is the latest bit of distressing news I received from friends in Kenya. She was a quiet little girl whom I first met in 2005. I remember her leaning over her drawing of a figure next to a neat little house with a fence. That comfortable family home was probably Queen’s dream, for her own family had been shattered by AIDS. Queen had lost her mother to the disease in 2000 and had been living with her grandfather, who was 95, in a small village in northern Kenya. But he was too poor to care for Queen and her older sister, Lucy. So in 2003, the two girls settled into the Mji Wa Neema orphanage in Naivasha, Kenya, a small, well-run children’s shelter under the umbrella of the Catholic Church.

But Queen showed signs of ill health. She suffered coughing fits and chest pain, occasional rashes, diarrhea and boils. She was behind the growth curve for a child of nine. Her caregivers suspected she was HIV-positive. When it was confirmed, she was put on the waiting list for antiretroviral drugs. But there was a limited supply of these medications in Kenya, particularly those designed for children. And so she waited. Queen also suffered socially because of her HIV status; it was hard for the other children in the orphanage to accept it, though they did so over time. By the summer of 2006, Queen began receiving anti-AIDS drugs. Jecinta Gakahu, the social worker at the orphanage who has dedicated much of her time to the children, told us on a return visit in 2007 that Queen had improved tremendously and was starting to grow again. Her mood also had improved. “She does not complain of anything,” Jecinta said. “Whenever there is work to be done after school, she’s the least likely to complain about it.”

The community now is in mourning twice over. Jecinta’s brother, also HIV-positive, died last night as well. Only faith sustains them now.

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