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Updates from Kwame Dawes

PUBLISHED: June 9, 2008

For those of you who haven’t already read it, Kwame Dawes contributed a remarkable piece on HIV/AIDS in Jamaica to our Spring issue. The essay, made possible through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, chronicles the lives of several people living with the disease as well as the health care workers who help them.

We now have updates on two of those people described in his piece—one hopeful, one tragic.

First, Kwame has updated the story of Annesha Taylor in a story for the Outlook section of today’s Washington Post. VQR readers will remember that Annesha was the poster girl for the HIV/AIDS abstinence program in Jamaica—until it was discovered that she had become pregnant. She became despondent when she was ostracized and openly toyed with the idea of discontinuing the use of the medication that keeps her alive and healthy. Now, Kwame writes:

a few days ago I spoke with Annesha again. This time, she sounded tired but optimistic, as if her hopeful spirit could carry her through her struggles. I pray that it will keep her going for as long as possible.

We, like Kwame, are heartened to hear of Annesha’s newfound optimism. Unfortunately, our feelings are tempered by the sad news Kwame sent directly to us:

During the times I spent in Jamaica, I admit that a part of me was always aware of the presence of death, a presence that many of those living with the disease had come to terms with. They taught me a lot. What I was not expecting was the death of those working with people with the disease, those without the disease. A few days ago, I learned that John Marzouca, a wonderfully generous and tender spirited man who co-directed the Hope Hospice in Montego Bay, died tragically in a fire at his home. John and I were not close friends, but in the long time I spent talking to him, I grew to admire this man whose gentle wit and pragmatic wisdom were a revelation to me. I do think about the people who came to depend on him at Hope Hospice and I think of his family, and I have thought that his death is such a loss. May he rest in peace.

Even those of us who knew Marzouca only through Kwame’s words will feel his loss. He seemed the classic gentle giant—a quiet, thoughtful man who willingly gave everything of himself for others. When I think of Marzouca I think first of this wonderful passage from Kwame’s essay:

John seems to have been collecting lives instead of a litany of deaths. He laments forgetting the names of many who came to the hospice and died, but he always remembers something small, something specific and human, even when he cannot conjure up a name. He speaks of the gift he has been given, as people open up to him, allow him into their lives. You can tell he thrives on these moments, as if he is humbled and strengthened by them.

He tells me about the young man, Noel, who had always loved mangoes, but the medication mixed with the acidic fruit made him vomit. Then one day he asked for mangoes. “Hey, bring the mango,” he said, “because if I eat the mango, I die, and if I don’t eat the mango, I die, so bring the mango.”

And I think now, too, of Kwame’s extraordinary poem (part of the sequence “Quilt,” included in the interactive feature), spoken in John’s voice:

Thank you for your appetite for ripe mangoes
I washed in caught rain water, wiping
them down, then cutting them into two
succulent cups, thank you for the eating,
your mouth moving quickly, your body
savoring every sting of Bombay sweet-
sour; thank you for sucking white gleefully
each seed; thank you for the heat
in your gleaming head; the gurgling melody
of your pleasure; thank you that though
you became sick, that you thanked me
for my gift to you. I pray that tomorrow
you will wake in mango heaven; feasting
on bushels of sweet, your renewed body shining.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of John Marzouca. And we thank him for welcoming us, as he did so many, into his life.

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