A few shelves in my home are filled with photo albums from my childhood and my children’s childhoods. Digital cameras have pretty much made these a thing of the past, but most people still take pictures (often with their mobile phones) to help record and remember the important people and events in their lives.
While in Zambia recently, I saw a different kind of memory collection. When working with families and communities affected with HIV/AIDS, ChildFund, like other NGOs, introduce the idea of making memory books. This tradition began decades ago as parents started dying from AIDS and leaving behind young children. As these young orphans grew older, the memory of their parents and their family history would fade in time, leaving them unconnected to their past. As important, the children were often unaware of family assets to which they were entitled, such as farmland, so the books became wills as well. Over time, the memory books became a wonderful way of passing on the story of one family to the next generation.
The community members I visited in Zambia demonstrated how they made these books from recycled cardboard, paper and string. One memory book I read was filled with a handwritten account of the history of the parents – where they were born, where they lived and who was in the extended family. Scattered throughout were a few photos – pictures of their children when they were young, a faded photo of a grandfather and a favorite aunt. There was also an account of the best day of one mother’s life – when they had a big party in her home to welcome a visiting relative. I have read several memory books over the years.
Although very inspirational, they are also painful reminders of the toll AIDS has taken on many communities, particularly in Africa. The XIX International AIDS Conference, held in Washington, D.C., in late July, celebrated how far we have come in treating people living with AIDS, with participants noting that we’re now at a defining moment for ending this epidemic. That news is unbelievably exciting to those who have worked so hard to make a seemingly impossible dream a reality. I deeply hope and pray this happens.
Until the impact of AIDS is behind us, ChildFund will continue the memory book tradition. In a good way, the concept has even seeped into our youth programs where teenagers are encouraged to make their own Hero Books. In these they record the stories of those they admire and write about their own personal strengths and dreams. These books are a wonderful way of building self-confidence and leadership skills.
As I was leaving the community in Zambia, I was given my own blank memory book to complete. When I opened it, I saw the cover was made from a recycled box of TOMS Shoes that ChildFund recently helped distribute in the community. I love gifts that keep on giving.