Date of Award
Dr. Barbara Pemberton
Dr. Joe Jeffers
Dr. Tom Affenberg
I had come to South Africa in search of a group, organization, or person whose story I could bring back home and use to forge a connection between Americans and the seemingly incomprehensible, hopeless, and overwhelming situation faced by the people of South Africa from the AIDS epidemic. The epidemic in South Africa is among the worst in the world as more people live with AIDS there than in any other country. No magic pill or amount of foreign aid will quickly and neatly shore up decades of social, political, economic, and psychological underpinnings that have paved the way for the epidemic's hold on the country. Yet, here stood a building and people working to affect change in the lives of nineteen orphaned children, part of the future generation of the nation. Small steps, enduring acts of generosity and kindness, relentless hope, these are the things that can save South Africa. On my very first day, I had found my starfish.
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a figure in the distance. As he got closer, he realized the figure was that of a little boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, "What are you doing?" The boy replied, "I'm saving the starfish. The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them back, they'll die." "Son," the man said, "don't you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of thousands of starfish? There are too many. You can't possibly make a difference!" After listening politely, the boy bent down, pricked up another starfish and threw it into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, "I just made a difference for that one."
Prior to my trip, I had always been struck by the gulf that seems to separate developed, first world countries like the United States from the issues and struggles faced by less developed nations. One can hardly turn on the news without seeing images of crying babies, bombed out villages, and useless carnage. Yet, because an ocean separates us from the devastation, we have the luxury of saying, "Gosh, that's really terrible," switching the channel, and eating our dinner without so much as a guilty conscience. Because we cannot relate to the plight of the people whose images we see nearly every day, we have a tendency to dismiss it. I think this comes from a failure to connect with the fact that real living, breathing, people are behind those images; people that, I have found, are not so different in a lot of striking ways.
Another problem is the shear magnitude of the issue. AIDS afflicts far more people in Sub-Saharan Africa that anywhere else in the world. Nearly six-times as man people are infected in South Africa than in the United States, although it has roughly one-sixth the population. Major social, historical, economic, and psychological obstacles stand in the way of eradicating the far-reaching and encompassing nature of the disease. At once, the problem can seem almost too big to tackle, too much to take.
Yet, the size of the issue should not translate into an excuse for indifference. The story of AIDS and South Africa is more than just a story of how six million people currently live with a fatal disease that has no cure. It is nearly fifty-five million stories of fifty-five million individuals who are profoundly affected by the epidemic every day. True, a group or community cannot realistically hope to significantly affect the lives of fifty-five million people, but they certainly can improve the chance for success for nineteen mostly AIDS orphans at Thandanani orphanage.
The story of AIDS and South Africa will not draw to a close for the foreseeable future, but by taking that walk down the beach when everyone else is content sunning themselves on their towels, we at least have a chance of making a difference to a few very special starfish.
Vickroy, Lauren, "The Starfish Principle: Drawing Purpose From South Africa's AIDS Crisis" (2008). Honors Theses. 66.