Every village has a proverbial idiot, and here, I’m the idiot.
I’ve tried and failed at eating with my hands. I can’t speak or understand Kannada. They imitate my accent and the way I walk, laughing at my American swagger. Even the local mosquitoes have singled me out as a culinary delicacy.
Snehagram means “village of love” in Sanskrit. Located in rural Tamil Nadu in southern India, it is home to forty-four adolescents, all of whom have HIV. I first met one of them, Babu, when he was eleven and I was fifteen. He was born with HIV and both his parents had died of AIDS by the time he was five. His village community did not want him. “I was scared of HIV. I thought I was going to die very soon,” he said.
Despite the troubled lives of Babu and his friends, Snehagram is a place where true happiness exists. As I run five kilometers with them at sunrise, the rolling hills that surround the campus make me feel like I share my own corner of the world with these kids, isolated from everything else. The air is pure and true. Every morning, a cow wakes me up with its incessant mooing. At morning mass, I kneel alongside the kids on the cold marble floor of the makeshift chapel, praying for a better world and a better me. The room is small and the walls are blank, yet the unified love for God that I feel is unlike anything I’ve experienced in my local church or any cathedral. There is an overwhelming spirit of hope.
When I initially started my foundation to help these kids, people often asked me questions like “What inspires you?’ or “Why have you taken on this initiative?” I used to say something like “The world is an ugly place, and I want to make it better.”
Why did I think it was ugly?
Babu and his friends were innocent, yet they had to face such challenging lives. Thousands of kids like them had little education and no chance of future employment. They had been written off as a statistic, mere numbers on a UNICEF report. I believed that I went back every summer to live and work with them, to teach and coordinate classes and games, to raise both awareness and money, and to get family and friends to sponsor a few of them, all because of the ugliness in the world.
But as I stood in front of my class of sixteen teenagers one day in August, I had a realization.
“What are the mean, median, mode and range of this set?” I ask.
Hands shoot up. Smiles appear. “Ana!” (brother in Kannada) “I know!” shouts Radhika, an inquisitive teen who almost got married off by her uncle last year. Now, she grins with delight, eagerly tapping her pencil on her desk.
These kids are confident. They’re friendly. They’re communicative, switching seamlessly between three languages. Despite all the hardships they’ve endured, they are strong. They overcame.
This year, when Babu spoke at the International AIDS Conference in Sydney, he said, “I am not worried about death. I am healthy, happy, and confident like any normal child.” He wasn’t kidding. He runs 10K every week.
I realized that I am not motivated by the ugliness in the world. I am driven by its beauty. Babu, Radhika, and Snehagram represent the triumph of the human spirit. No matter how terrible their lives may be, they stay positive and live life to the fullest.
Babu kicks the football toward me laughing, kicking up a cloud of the red Martian soil of southern India. Before I can get to it, it is intercepted by Radhika. “You have to be faster, Ana.”
Maybe so. I may be the village idiot. But like any idiot, I’m just happy to be a part of the village.
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