Children in a crisis | November 13, 2009 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - November 13, 2009

Children in a crisis

Local author travels to Africa to document the pain and hope of kids living through the AIDS epidemic

by Be'eri Moalem

"Many people assume that HIV/AIDS is no longer a problem, that somehow we have mastered this virus. Nothing could be further from the truth," says Ruthann Richter, the author of "Face to Face: Children of the AIDS Crisis in Africa."

Richter, a Palo Alto medical writer, joined documentary photographer Karen Ande on a series of trips to Kenya starting in 2004. What started as a visit to help out at an orphanage in Navisha, Kenya, is now a newly published book.

Richter and Ande, who were college roommates at Stanford in the 1970s, will be discussing their new book in three local events in the coming weeks, including a Nov. 19 talk at Kepler's Books.

"I had been covering AIDS for decades as a medical writer," said Richter, who is director of media relations at Stanford University and a former newspaper reporter. "But nothing could prepare me for the emotional impact of seeing children living under the stark conditions we encountered."

The book is about children in Kenya and those who give them care. Its photos show kids in tattered clothing living in tin shacks or running around the streets alongside open-sewer trenches. Poorly supplied classrooms, hunger and desperation for survival are narrated in a set of moving stories. But despite the depictions of dire poverty and the grim reality of AIDS, "Face to Face" also manages to convey a sense of beauty, hope and happiness.

"I agreed to take these photos in an effort to help her (Richter) publicize the need. ... (I) returned home and watched these children's faces emerge in the developing tray," Ande said in an e-mail interview. "It was one of the most exciting things I'd ever seen. I knew these kids mattered and had the good sense to realize I could help them ... if I would totally turn my life upside down. I did and haven't looked back."

The children in Ande's photos are joyous, curious, innocent or mischievous, as one would expect from children anywhere. The kids have bright smiles, huge inquisitive eyes and colorful outfits. Alongside suffering there are smiles. Alongside distress there is kindness. Alongside disease there is life.

"Face to Face" profiles 13-year-old Esther Ipeche, who takes care of her family after her mother died of AIDS; "go-go grannies" such as 98-year-old Sara Nduku, who take care of grandchildren whose parents have died; Father Daniel Kiriti, who helps commercial sex workers find alternative professions; and the children who depend on the kindness and resilience of those who step in as their parents.

Ande took more than 10,000 photos in Africa and built relationships with the locals in order to capture natural-looking pictures.

"People in Kenya do not, and I mean seriously do not, like to have their photos taken unless they know why you are doing it and have their permission," she told the Weekly. "It wasn't possible to photograph people on the street, except for in a few places to which I returned. Once they came to know me and realized that I would return with their prints they were much more willing to cooperate."

Because she has worked as a physical therapist, Ande said: "I am used to being physically near people and respectful of their situation. I am also comfortable around serious illness and I think the people I photographed picked up on that."

Ande made nine trips to Africa and would sometimes stay for up to a month. "I discovered people that were extraordinarily different from the one-sided version usually portrayed in the western media. Yes, people are suffering, children are orphaned and struggling. But children are also hopeful and have dreams for themselves. I talked to one teenaged slum girl who wanted to be an airline pilot; many others wanted to be doctors or nurses so they could help people."

Throughout Richter's career, she has been following developments in the battle against HIV-AIDS. In an e-mail, she lists statistics that are echoed in her book:

"There are an estimated 22.5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who are living with HIV, including 2.3 million children ... and 12 million orphans in that region, with the numbers growing daily. AIDS is causing communities to crumble. Life expectancy in countries heavily affected by HIV/AIDS is now 49 years, 13 years less than it would be without AIDS, according to the World Health Organization. Most children born with HIV have a life expectancy of five years."

According to Richter, antiretroviral drugs that prevent transmission of HIV 99 percent of the time are available. She said: "In the Bay Area, there has not been a single child born HIV-positive in years. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, there are 400,000 to 500,000 children born HIV-positive every year. That's because only about 20 percent of pregnant, HIV-positive women undergo testing and less than half get any kind of therapeutic intervention."

Richter and Ande have helped raise thousands of dollars for the children in Africa, and a portion of the proceeds from the book will also be donated to the cause. Richter's recommended charity for children with AIDS is the Santa Cruz-based Firelight Foundation, www.firelightfoundation.org.

In addition to educating readers about the plight of children affected by the epidemic, Richter hopes the book will also be used as a fundraising tool.

"I could not turn my back on what I saw," she said, "and I returned hoping that others would not turn their backs either."

What: Author Ruthann Richter and photographer Karen Ande talk about their new book, "Face to Face: Children of the AIDS Crisis in Africa."

Where and when: Three talks are planned: 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at Cafe Scientifique at the Stanford Blood Center, 3373 Hillview Ave., Palo Alto; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19 at Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park; and 11:15 a.m. Nov. 22 at Congregation Kol Emeth, 4175 Manuela Ave., Palo Alto.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to facetofaceafrica.com or call 650-725-8047.

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