Crying for Our Elders: Review

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Crying for Our Elders:
African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS

by Kristen E. Cheney
University of Chicago Press

Reviewed by T.J. Banks

Silence is not always golden, as Kristen E. Cheney learned in her fieldwork with young Ugandans orphaned by AIDS. Much of their suffering is, she writes in Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS, “exacerbated by people’s silence about such suffering. Many adults discourage open dialogue with children over the reasons for—and sometimes even the fact of—their parents’ deaths, thinking that it protects the children from trauma.” However, “[t]he persistent silence surrounding HIV/AIDS can compound the children’s suffering.”

These are children who have, as she points out, never known a world without AIDS. It’s a fact of life—so much so that grade-school children sing a song about it. That song, which inspired the title of Cheney’s book, is stark and despairing: “AIDS, AIDS has killed so many people…/Oh, no shouting, no advice:/Where shall we go?”

The children that Cheney meets show “exceptional resilience and agency in the fight for survival in the era of AIDS orphanhood.” But so many are modern-day Dickensian waifs and have experienced things that no child should have to experience. Belinda, a kindergartener, lives with her great-aunt and draws “her parents and siblings in her picture not because she lived with them but because she wished she did: her parents lived elsewhere while dealing with effects of HIV/AIDS, and her twin older siblings were staying with their maternal grandmother.” Belinda eventually loses both parents. But no family member ever talks with her about these losses, and she grieves over not having had the chance to say good-bye to her father.

Diana, another six-year-old, has lost her father to AIDS: she ends up living with her father’s stepbrother, who has no affection for her. He leaves Diana at “home with the maids to cook for the workers in [his] factory”; her cousins tease her mercilessly, and her only friend is the family dog.

Crying for Our Elders is a scholarly book, and the research is impeccable. But it only truly comes to life when Cheney writes about the Belindas and the Dianas. Their individual stories touch us on a visceral level and bring this particular war home to us.


T.J. Banks is the author of Sketch People, A Time for Shadows, Catsong, Houdini, and other books. Catsong was the winner of the 2007 Merial Human-Animal Bond Award.