When I was in Lesotho last year, I met a young woman named Mammope, and her 18 month old daughter, Katleho. Mammope is HIV-positive. She’s been HIV positive since before Katleho was born. Mammope followed a strict regimen of PMTCT treatment during her pregnancy, and, as of when I spoke to her, Katleho was HIV free. We spoke of her treatment, about her life as single mother, the difficulties that she faced just getting by, her determination to do everything in her power to keep her daughter well and safe. We talked and we talked; she told me that ‘Katleho’ means ‘success’ in Sotho and that she named her daughter Katleho because she, that little girl, was her success, was her very greatest success. And we talked some more, and then some more, and then, just as we were about to say our goodbyes, she paused, and turned away from the translator, and asked, in hesitant English, this: “can you tell me, in America, is there a cure for my HIV? Will you find a cure?” She paused again. “Because I want to live for my baby, for Katleho.” And then she started to cry.
That moment was the only moment in Lesotho when I couldn’t control my tears. Oh, I wept during that trip. A lot. But it was usually in the privacy of my hotel room, or a discreet tearing up behind the van that drove us around the countryside, visiting clinics and orphanages. That moment with Mammope was the only time that I fully burst into tears, in public (to my very great embarrassment, I should add.) And I cry every time I remember her. I don’t need to break that down for you, I don’t think. It just, you know, got to me. Because I knew. I know. I understood her fear. I understood way deep down in my gut, where you can feel sick from such understanding. I knew. I know.
Mammope and Katleho are just a mother and child, but they are one mother and one child among too, too many, and maybe it’s enough that I can tell you part of their story – that I can play some part in helping the world move closer to an age without AIDS – and maybe it’s not – what good is opening eyes if our hands aren’t sufficient to the work? – but it’s all that I’ve got, all that I can do.
And I can tell you this: Mammope remains one of the singular inspirations for me, as a mother. My own mother, and my sister, too, are inspirations, but Mammope stands out as an inspiration because our only point of connection is our motherhood. She persists in my memory because of that connection, and because that connection was made in such a way that I continue be inspired by her. She fights, Mammope. She fights to thrive and to live and to be, for Katleho. Her motherhood is one that is defined by her presence, by her robust presence, by her persistent presence, and when I’m having one of those no good horrible bad days during which I convince myself that I am the worst mother ever and my god, this motherhood thing, what the hell, I think of Mammope, and I stop, and I remember: the best that I can do is to be there, and to be committed to being there, to have my whole self there, and to be grateful for the persistence of my presence.
I thank Mammope for that. I thank all mothers who insist upon the persistence of their maternal presence for that.
I wrote this as part of the launch of mothers2mother’s new ‘babies2babies’ campaign to celebrate moms and babies (launched today in honor of World Aids Day). m2m are hoping that by sharing stories of how we’ve been inspired by other mothers – and by simply driving forward a narrative that celebrates mothers and babies generally – will drive some support their way, and help them continue working toward the goal of eliminating maternal transmission of HIV. To that end, they’re hoping that women – and men – everywhere will consider throwing baby showers – real or virtual – in honor of the moms and babies whose lives are threatened by HIV. Moms and babies like Mammope and Katleho, who are moms and babies like us and our own. Let’s do what we can to support them.