Memory Boxes

Memories from Africa

Organizations help people living with HIV/AIDS preserve their family Legacy for those they might leave behind
by Karen Fleur Tofti-Tufarelli

What is a “memory box”? The answer is multifaceted. It can be a binder, an elaborately carved box, a folder holding a cassette tape, a bag, or a beer sign folded into a box. It often contains what might be thought of as very little—maybe a letter and an inexpensive necklace. Yet, it is this box, and, more significantly, the process of making it, that helps orphans and family members in Africa remember those who have died of AIDS.

“I remember speaking to a young man—eleven when he was orphaned,” said Shana Greene, executive director of the sustainable development-focused non-profit Village Volunteers, which counts “memory work”—primarily for those with HIV/AIDS—among several of the tasks its volunteers perform in Africa. “He was head of the household,” Greene continued. “He would have loved to have had something of his mother’s and father’s…he would lie in bed and worry about not remembering what they looked like.”

The concept of memory boxes took root in Britain in the early 1990s among a group of HIV-positive African parents, according to an article by IRIN, a service of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, citing information gathered in a 2003 conference organized by the Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative (REPSSI) and the Memory Box Project of the AIDS and Society Research Unit (ASRU) at the University of Cape Town.

Now, the process of “memory work”—referred to in some formal reports as “psycho-social rehabilitation services”—is used in many regions and countries in Africa, and also functions as a means of validation for the person who is sick.

In some instances the filling of the memory boxes can be a “joyous” process, says Greene. The “family is all present…there’s a lot of laughter; they’re sharing stories…they’re sharing advice.”

Often, as an adjunct to making a memory box, a family tree is made as well.

Thalia Truesdell, an Oregon artist who spent 2006 in Africa—most of it in five Kenyan villages doing memory work arranged through Village Volunteers—says that the building of the family tree “was always very interesting, peppered with family disagreements about when someone died, or who came from where. Birthdays were sketchy or unknown, but everyone remembered the dates of deaths, and any unusual circumstances, events, or weather around them.”

“Back in my hut, with a straight edge, colored pencils, and a ream of cardstock, I recorded and decorated family trees that I am sure hang proudly in every home,” she says.

Whereas memory boxes seem to have taken hold in the broader Western culture (on-line retailers sell several varieties, lifestyle publications show how to make pretty, crafty versions); in Africa, Truesdell used only bags or folders.

“The Memory Box program morphed into the Memory program, because the boxes confused the patients,” says Truesdell. In fact, she said, although “[t]here may have been some boxes at some villages…it was immediately evident to me that giving them something the size of a shoe box for the mementos they did not, nor ever would have, was too confusing.…[B]oxes are not plentiful in the villages where everything except [plastic basins] is locally made or grown, and there is no packaging of any sort.”

“Most of those recording their history were in bed,” Truesdell says, “and I often was offered the only other piece of furniture—a squat little stool. The patient owned the clothes on her back, and maybe a pair of oft-repaired flip-flops, if she was lucky. She had nothing from her past, and only a very short and bleak future. The boxes would remain empty, except for the lone cassette tape.”

“The patients I interviewed were possibly the sickest in the villages….Some of them could not even keep up the energy to answer questions from their beds.”

Another volunteer, Joanruth Baumann, who, along with her husband Dick Coffey, did memory work for a few months in the village of Kunya, Kenya, in 2007 (they also spent time in Nairobi and in a rural area north of Mombassa), says that the boxes in Kunya were made of heavy Tusker beer and Coca-Cola signs, bent to make the boxes, with little latches added.

Baumann explains why the memory work was affirming on many levels: “The interviews were supposed to keep a record of the person’s life for their children, but it turned out to be more for them. It became a validating experience. Partly this was because someone was paying attention to them and took photos—which most [had] never had [taken]—and a book about them now existed.”

Truesdell, who was the first to do memory boxes in Muhuru Bay, Kenya, after another woman in the village had “sort of laid the groundwork” for her, still “had to fight to get it [the memory work] going.” But, when she did, she says, people were “accosting her in the street,” asking her to do memory boxes for them.

“There were sixty to eighty people at memory box meetings,” she says. A lot of people had never admitted that they were HIV-positive, she says, and were in denial about the real cause of their illness. It was common in the village for AIDS deaths to be ascribed to tuberculosis or other opportunistic illnesses, she notes.

But the memory box project became so popular that more and more people began to acknowledge their HIV-positive status. “They just came pouring out of the woodwork—I did five to six in a day…,” she says.
In Baumann’s experience, those with a positive HIV status “don’t look for a reason, for an excuse—they don’t blame their partner—[they ascribe it to] the will of God.”

Now, however, as a result of PEPFAR, with its emphasis on prevention, testing, and antiretroviral drug prophylaxis, and the multinational Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, there are more antiretroviral drugs getting through to the villages. Those funds, however, said Baumann, “didn’t reach the people for a very long time,” due to government corruption.

How have the longer lives made possible by the antiretrovirals affected memory work?

Greene, who founded Village Volunteers ten years ago, is in a position to have seen the concept of memory boxes evolve.

“At one point in time everyone wanted to have one done because they felt that their time was limited,” says Greene. “But now that there are available antiretrovirals and people are living much longer lives…we did see that there were a lot of elderly people who wanted to have [a] memory box, and we thought that was just as worthy.”

Says Truesdell: “The memory idea—no matter how it’s formatted—is an outstanding idea.”

Memory box volunteers also benefit from the resulting ties. Several of Greene’s volunteers with degrees in public health have gone on to become doctors after their experience in Africa, she says, and many go back and volunteer again. Baumann recently served on the board of the Kunya-based Mama na Dada, and Truesdell still maintains ties to villages where she worked.

Karen Fleur Tofti-Tufarelli is a freelance writer and expert in the areas of art and culture; the environment and sustainability; food and health; law, public policy, historic preservation and politics. Write Karen at [email protected], or delve into the world of gluten-free living at her Web site: Follow her on Twitter: @gfsafari.

October 2012

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