FRANKFURT AM MAIN
Last night, Bert, our producer, was ill. Violent diarrhea and a temperature made it a shivery, sleepless night. In the morning we decide that today he will stay in bed and that we will come back at the end of the day to pick him up for our return journey to Amsterdam. I leave him alone with a cup of tea, some bananas and yogurt. From under the duvet he waves me off with a faint smile on his sweaty lips.
Cool man. No complaints!
There are four of us on this journey. Willem is Dutch glory personified. His energy is inexhaustible. In the 14 years I’ve known him I’ve never known him to be ill. But with Bert, Marjolein and me, he’s with three ‘veterans’. ‘Veterans’ is horrific HIV jargon. Such a word makes you unnecessarily old. Anyway, it means that our HIV found its way into our bodies decades ago. After such a long time the virus has caused a lot of damage to its contents. But in our case relatively easy to live with. We are a cheerful bunch, always passionate about our work. Not a thought about giving up. And if occasionally we’re laid low with diarrhea, then the answer is “It can happen to anyone.”
And that’s a fact!
This weekend, however, I realize once again the privileged circumstances Marjolein, Bert and I live in. The stories shared with us at Helping Hands are sometimes heartbreaking. HIV is still a huge catalyst for misery and woe in many places in the world. Ethiopia and Eritrea, are not comparable to The Netherlands or Germany. The stigma of HIV is deep rooted in the Horn of Africa. It changes everything. A woman with HIV just does not count anymore. They become pariahs in their own family. Their husbands sometimes react with extreme violence.
The cheerfulness which echoes through the HelpingHand meeting room is a release and at the same time an exorcism. Loud laughter keeps the demons at bay. But today I also see many tears, because not all pain is chased away by a laugh.
The good news is this meeting room. Sixty or seventy square meters that guarantee safety, friendship and where there’s always something to eat in the refrigerator. It doesn’t seem much, but it is more than anything. What happens here, what HelpingHand’s simple concept has done here is very special. Their self-confidence, the women say, is so much greater now than when they first entered. Their fear about their infection is much less now. And perhaps most importantly, their belief in their future has returned. Horst Herkommer, the big man at HelpingHand, along with doctors and psychotherapists at the clinic, have performed a miracle by giving the most vulnerable a way out of their hopelessness.
On the way back to Amsterdam there is a good-humored, sickly passenger in the back seat . “Can you turn the heating up?” and then later: ”Can you turn it down a bit now?!” Just before sleep overtakes him, we hear some mumbling: “Great days eh? Such inspiring people.“