Dignity vs. Humanity
Robina died two weeks after I met her. She lived in Uganda, on an island in Lake Victoria that at the time was near ground zero of the AIDS epidemic. She was one of the last living people between the ages of 17 and 60.
If I showed you a photo, you’d see a hollow-eyed, emaciated woman with a sad face and ragged clothes, sitting on a mat in a hut with a dirt floor and holes in the walls.
Her husband had died a few weeks earlier. At that time, in that place, AIDS was an automatic and swift death sentence. Robina knew, the moment he started showing symptoms of AIDS, that she was next.
Her greatest fear, she told me, wasn’t her coming death, but what was ahead for her six young children. Robina’s frail, elderly mother had agreed to care for them. But how could she possibly provide for so many?
Before I left Robina’s home, she reached up and gave me her hand. It was cool to the touch. She smiled — past her pain, past her worry — an unbelievably gracious smile for me, the pale stranger who randomly showed up at her deathbed one day.
I’ve never met royalty. But I imagine what you feel is like what I experienced that day with Robina: mixed awe and awkwardness. A sense of the presence of greatness. Knowing it’s a moment you’ll carry close for the rest of your life.
I’m telling you about Robina because there’s a movement afoot to protect people like her. Not so much from poverty or disease — but from assaults on their dignity. Assaults like the one I’ve just committed by sharing these things with you.
That’s right. There are folks in the international relief and development sector who’d say I’ve undermined Robina’s dignity by revealing details about her situation. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is like saying looking at the ocean undermines its wetness.