Five years ago this month, I went to Lesotho with the UN Global Fund to see the work of their Born HIV Free campaign and to get to know their partner organizations. The idea was to see the stories on the ground, and to figure out ways to tell those stories in a way that might help the cause of generating more support for the Millennium Development Goals. We traveled the week of the UN meetings; our Internet was spotty at best, and we relied on email dispatches from the Global Fund to find out how things were going. I posted my stories. I hoped that I was doing some good.
At the time, I didn’t know anybody who had done this; I didn’t have a context for how to write about it or even think about it. I was overwhelmed. I did the best that I could. When I look at those posts now, I can still feel how anxious I was. I wanted so badly to get it right.
It’s five years to the month, to the week. The conversation about Global Goals is now a rich and expansive conversation. There are so many more stories out there now, infinitely more, and they’ve changed that conversation; they’re what’s made that conversation rich. They’re what’s making the difference. For me, though, all the stories still reduce to this story, the story that I’ve republished below. The story of this girl, and her dream. She’s always going to be the story that I return to when I ask myself what change I’m trying to effect, what difference I’m trying to make. She’s always going to be the story that is the music that is my prayer that is my purposed for a better world.
I met her at what the Global Fund calls an ‘OVC House,’ or home for orphaned and vulnerable children, although in this specific case it was actually a residential school for visually-impaired children who have been orphaned or otherwise made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS, all of which is to say that it is not a place where you expect to do a lot of giggling. But I did giggle, a lot, because this young woman and her friends followed me around, giggling, and giggling, as it happens, is infectious, whether you’re in Lesotho with blind orphans or anywhere else in the world.
They stuck close to me, these girls, as I took pictures, following me around, asking me again and again to take their photo, posing and giggling behind cupped hands, squealing cheese! every time that I pointed the camera in their direction. They were sweet and they were funny and it was impossible, in their presence, to not share their laughter, which was wonderful, because, as I said: homes for blind orphans who’ve lost their families or been abandoned by their families because of HIV/AIDS are not places where you expect to do a lot of laughing. I was grateful for the laughing.
And I did laugh. I laughed a lot. I laughed when she asked me if I liked Beyonce (sure I do, I said, as I waggled my hand and warbled “all the single ladies, all the single ladies!” while they collapsed in fits of giggles.) She wanted to pose like Beyonce, she told me, and she wanted to sing like Beyonce and just as I was about to tell her that her poses put Beyonce’s to shame, she burst into the sweetest rendition of ‘Halo’ that I’d ever heard. At which point my smile became drenched by tears, and – and I know this sounds terrible – I was grateful that she and her friends could not see well enough to register that I was crying.
I asked if I could record her. She said yes.
(That wobble at the end? That’s me, giggling and crying and clapping like an idiot.)
Beyonce can only dream of singing so purely.
It was a moment, for me, that captured, perfectly, the complicated reality of everything that we witnessed last week. Circumstances and situations and lives that were, to our Western, privileged eyes, so unimaginably sad – circumstances and situations and lives that were, in many cases, sad to any eyes – stories that seemed, on the face of it – and, in many cases, on the back and sides and all the hidden underpoints of it – unbearably tragic, were yet, at times, in ways, so ordinary, or even uplifting. We cried, but we also laughed. We shared many, many smiles, with each other, and with everyone that we met. My heart was broken, but it also, so many times, swelled with happiness and hope. A complicated happiness and hope, to be sure, but still.
It’s a difficult story to tell, because it is so complicated, because there is so much sadness at its core, and because that sadness is lashed with threads of hope, and because – mostly because – it is an unfinished story. That little blind girl in the school in Lesotho who dreams of singing like Beyonce – who already puts Beyonce to shame – may thrive. There’s a chance that she will thrive. It’s not a very big chance, but it’s there. And I – and, I hope, you, and anyone who is reading – have to cling to that possibility, that her story could have a happy ending, or a happy-ish ending, or even just some happy moments, whatever that means (and believe me when I say that one of the most complicating factors in this storytelling is that I no longer know what constitutes ‘happy endings,’ or even, really, what it means to speak of happiness in a world in which ‘happy endings’ as we understand them are closed to so many) even if the odds seem stacked so high, so very high, against it.
Because the unhappy story – with the unhappy ending that follows the unhappy beginning, and middle – is only wholly so if we forget that it, too, carries giggles, and singing.
We need to listen closely to the singing.
(And, we still need to sign.)