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Memory Books for Children

Dorothea Topf (wo)October 1, 2004

At the Berlin International Literature Festival, Swedish crime novelist Henning Mankell this week talked about "memory books," which parents dying from AIDS keep for their children to read when they are orphans.

Will he remember his parents when he grows up?Image: AP

Memory books act as family memoirs for future AIDS orphans: Words, pictures, or affixed flowers are meant to remind children where they came from and who their parents were.

"Your birth", "Who you are", " What you like", "My aspirations for you" are some of the memory books' titles.

The language used is mostly simple and clear. With these memory books, dying parents break the silence that beleaguers the disease and warn vividly of the danger of HIV.

Thoughtlessness in the West

A shocking number of these books -- initiated by a Ugandan health consultant -- exists in Africa: 2.2 million people on the continent died from AIDS in 2003. Thirteen million children lost their parents to this disease, leaving behind only the aging and the very young. Often elder siblings have to take on the role of head of family.

Henning Mankell stellt neues Buch vor - Aids geht uns alle an
Henning Mankell at a book signingImage: dpa

At the Berlin International Literature festival, Mankell, a bestselling crime writer, documented this new culture of transmission in his latest creation, I'm dying, but my memory lives on.

The silent tragedy

Mankell, who divides half his time between his homes in Sweden and Mozambique, spent several weeks traveling in Uganda and speaking to HIV infected people.

The author said he was mostly touched by the tremendous degree of dignity that exudes from the memory books, which many parents see as a way to be remembered by their children as role models.

In all the books, the desperate desire to survive prevails: "I'm sorry my child for I have to go," one books reads. "I wished to live on but I can't. Please, don't forget me."

Preventing memory loss

The disease changes societies dramatically, said Peter Piot from UNAIDS, the United Nations' AIDS program. Especially the middle-aged population, the pillar of society, has been almost eradicated -- along with its knowledge -- in many regions of Africa.

AIDS Südafrika Demonstration
Aids is killing off complete societies in AfricaImage: AP

As a result, the transmission process of identity and culture must be restructured -- the cultivation of land, for example. Such things are not taught in schools, but rather passed down from generation to generation. A change in the education curriculum will be required to compensate for the new gap in knowledge.

In the US and Europe, medication makes the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS more tolerable. But for millions of HIV/AIDS sufferers in Africa this is not the case since many cannot even afford the medication.

Mankell described this as a man-made catastrophe and partly blamed the pharmaceutical industry for Africa's AIDS crisis.

"Maybe these small thin books will be the most important testimonials archaeologists will find one day, because they document one of the biggest epidemics of our time," he said. "Archaeologists will then also report about what we have done and what we haven't done to combat it."