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December 10, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 10, 2004

The face of an epidemic The face of an epidemic (December 10, 2004)

Photographer Karen Ande documents AIDS orphans in Africa

by Diana Reynolds Roome

The little girl is airborne, skipping as high as she can down a dirt road in Gikongoro, Rwanda. Her feet are bare but she's wearing her best dress -- red and white with a few frills around the hem -- and the blue sky and tumbling white clouds above reflect her joie de vivre. It's a moment snatched between an assuredly harsh past and a tremulously uncertain future.

In that moment, photographer Karen Ande has found vitality in the face of death -- including a spirit of delight, which poverty, displacement and illness have not obliterated.

Joy and sorrow are still raw in the new exhibit, "While We Sleep, AIDS: Africa and its Orphans," the result of six trips to Kenya and Rwanda made by Ande over the past four years. The photos reflect her growing involvement with the shattered families left behind by AIDS. The exhibition will be on display through Dec. 31 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto.

Some 12 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents, according to a UNAIDS estimate. Nobody knows how many children are also infected from mother-to-child transmission of the virus because they seldom get tested and even if they do, the vast majority receives no treatment, according to the World Health Organization. Ande suspects that many of them will not live long either.

While these are sad statistics to most onlookers, Ande has come closer to the reality of this illness as she has grown to know some of the families affected by it.

"Statistics don't mean anything until you see the faces. I got home and started seeing them come up in the developing tray ... and that was it," said Ande, who has found the issue of African orphans increasingly taking over her thoughts and life. "I want other people to see the face of the problem too."

Since her first trip to Kenya in 2000 to observe and photograph wildlife, Ande has felt compelled to return again and again to show the world what she has witnessed. A Stanford-trained physiotherapist with a practice in Palo Alto, she is no stranger to illness. Though many of the people Ande photographed in Africa died soon afterward, sadness does not dominate the exhibit.

Many of these photos are in color despite their somber subject matter, and they reflect a multitude of emotions, including despair in the eyes of a mother who has only weeks to live, and the tenderness of a volunteer health worker whose hands cradle the face of a dying patient.

There is patience and stoicism as well. A grandmother took Ande to the stone pit where she breaks rocks into gravel for 75 cents a barrow load. She was proud of her ability to help support her granddaughter, Judy, until she died at age 10 from the AIDS-related opportunistic infections that had also claimed her mother.

Most striking of all is the irrepressible nature of hope, humor, and the impulse to break into song and dance. In one scene, a crowd of children wave their arms in the air, their faces radiant, though the girl in front is crippled by cerebral palsy and some of the children manifest a stunting growth disorder. In another, three small boys in ragged school uniforms peep from behind a wooden door to mug toothily for the camera.

Some of these children are from an orphanage supported by the Thomas Merton Center in Palo Alto, which is sponsoring this exhibit, and from a children's center supported by Santa Cruz-based nonprofit Firelight Foundation, which has also helped sponsor Ande's work. Many of the children's stories accompany the photos.

Though the problems seem overwhelming, Ande focuses on what can be done. In Rwanda, she met a young woman who had contracted AIDS during the genocide. Though she had started on antiretroviral drugs (something few people get), she did not have the nourishing food necessary to get the full benefit from them. When Ande returned, two 6- and 7-year-old children from her church in San Francisco raided their piggy banks to raise $15, and Ande made up the sum to provide the woman with food and milk to build up her strength.

"We're not as helpless as we think," Ande said. "These children had been able to feed this woman. It really takes very little to help."

Ande herself raised $10,000 to support the orphanage at Naivasha when she rented a room at Fort Mason on her birthday and gave a show of her slides, according to Ruthann Richter, who accompanied Ande on one of her recent trips. "That's just the kind of person she is," Richter said.

Many of Ande's photos are for sale to raise funds for orphanages and for subsequent visits to Africa.

"Her work promises to open the eyes of those who are willing to look," said renowned documentary photographer Frank Espada, who has worked closely with Ande, "for it is powerful, sensitive and haunting."
What: "While We Sleep, AIDS: Africa and its Orphans," featuring photographs by Karen Ande
Where: St Mark's Episcopal Church Hall, 600 Colorado St. in Palo Alto
When: Through Dec. 31. Viewing hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: Admission is free.
Info: Please call (650) 856-7702 or visit or

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