Tacko Baldeh invited me to her wedding. She was a little ahead of herself, since her boyfriend hadn’t asked for her hand yet, but it was understandable; she’d finally found her man.
A lot of guys had been after Tacko. It’s easy to see why: She was young, good-looking, well dressed and respected at work. She was also a cutup, always ribbing the staff; she could really dish it out. But she could take it too.
She had her heart set on one guy. I’ll call him Mamadou. He was tall, handsome and had a bit of a swagger. He had a good heart, she said, and she expected him to pop the question at any time.
She was ready to be a mom. “I’ve been thinking about it,” she told me. “I am 20 years old. If I don’t get married and have a baby [soon], it will be difficult.” There was one complicating factor. She was HIV-positive.
She was determined to marry someone who was also positive. And Mamadou was. She didn’t want to infect someone, as her first husband had done to her. Now that she’d found Mamadou, life was good. She knew that two HIV-positive people could have an HIV-negative baby.
I was ready for the wedding. I was going to wear my silver tie and black shirt and show up with a gift. I thought some dishes would be nice.
But the wedding didn’t happen.
Tacko Baldeh died.
I was surprised how hard her death hit me. After all, I’d only spent an afternoon with her. But during that time, she opened up to me as few people with HIV do. She told me how her father pulled her out of school in seventh grade and forced her to marry, how her little boy died, and how her family had essentially abandoned her. Tacko was full of tenderness and patience; it seeped out of her.
I was lucky to see Tacko in action. She was an HIV counselor for the Catholic Development Office in Bassé, The Gambia, which is a CRS partner. I saw Tacko look a woman square in the eye and unleash her story. Don’t you dare complain, she said. You have your parents. You aren’t alone. Both my parents are dead. My husband is dead. My child is dead. I have to cook for myself every night. There’s nobody to help me.
The woman thanked Tacko; she’d thrown her life back into perspective.
Imagine that. This 20-year-old, HIV-positive girl, lecturing HIV-positive women old enough to be her mother. But they listened to her. They soaked up this girl’s advice. She’d lived with the virus and look at her now: radiant, confident, composed. If she can be like that, they thought, so can we.
Tacko’s dream was to travel to distant villages and counsel women who have HIV.
Her colleague, Almaame, sent me a note shortly after her death. The news rocked the office, he said. Almaame and the rest of the team work with HIV-positive Africans every day, and death isn’t anything new to them. They take comfort in the fact that they help children know their parents longer; fathers can father and mothers can mother for a few more years. And, if their time comes, Almaame and the others help them die with dignity.
No death is easy, but Almaame has learned to move on. There’s more people to counsel, blood samples to take, home visits to make. But Tacko’s death was a surprise. There’s an empty desk in the office now. There’s not as much joking going on. In the last few days, in fact, there’s been none.
I didn’t ask Almaame the details of Tacko’s death. That wasn’t important. I just wanted to remember the short time I spent with her.
I won’t see you again, Tacko. But I won’t forget you. You were my friend on that hot day in February. You took my hand and led me to your house. They laughed at us as we walked through the village; they said you’d found yourself a white man. We both got a kick out of that. I ceased to be a writer, and you weren’t an HIV-positive Gambian. We were just two friends, walking under the mango trees.
– Lane Hartill, CRS regional information officer, West Africa
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