John Stephens '11: Nutrition Means Life for South Africa's HIV Population

June 29, 2009

John Stephens received the Law School's Class of 1957 South Africa Human Rights Summer Fellowship to work for the AIDS Law Project in Johannesburg.

John Stephens '11 is working for the AIDS Law Project this summer.

"Brace yourself my boy." These were the last words Nelson Mandela's mother ever spoke to her son; he was 9 years old, he faced a new school, a new village, a new guardian, a new life. When it comes time to prepare oneself to experience South Africa — and to become part of a humanitarian movement, it is apt advice. This summer I am working for the AIDS Law Project in Johannesburg, South Africa, an organization dedicated to providing legal services to people living with HIV/AIDS. I arrived here yesterday, but my calendar insists that a month has passed.

I imagine that the lessons from an experience like this will root, mature and unfold over a lifetime; perhaps 20 years from now I will catch myself saying something, or understanding something, and I will think, "the summer of 2009 taught me this, and only now have I understood it."

I have been challenged in all of the astonishing and aching ways I hoped to be. The change is multifold: new country, new culture, new job, new friends, new skills and a new city — a very big one. I have lots of questions: Can I turn left on red? Am I lost? Are they honking at me? Should I eat that? Is this a sickness, or just a discomfort? Is he angry or is this funny? Could this be the good fight?  Is this the struggle? Can I even ask this question?

Stephens with colleagues
Stephens with colleagues in his office.

The work is hard, but it is achievable. It stretches me, but leaves me feeling accomplished. The days are long, but the weeks have passed in a flash and a blur. There should be a word for the peculiar class of joy that comes from challenge and achievement. Rilke said, Just as the winged energy of delight Carried you over many chasms early on, Now raise the daringly imagined arch Holding up astonishing bridges.

He means: turn to the work, participate, throw yourself in; to be carried along is not enough. It is an exciting time to be involved in human rights law in South Africa; the nation is young, the constitution is a breathtaking document — full of promise — and a new leader has just been elected. Time to raise the daringly imagined arch.

So, turn to the work. My first assignment has to do with the rights to food and adequate nutrition. These are enumerated rights in the South African constitution; part of my job is to research school feeding programs in connection with the realization of them. My other major assignment has to do with formula for feeding infants. For the mother who is HIV positive, there is a serious risk of transmitting the virus to her child through breast feeding. For this reason it is extremely important that these women feed their babies formula. Access to formula is therefore a crucial part of preventing mother-to-child-transmission of the virus; part of my job is doing research to ensure that these mothers can get the formula they need.

I've been blessed to receive this fellowship. My fortune is doubly good in that I've found such a meaningful organization to work and learn with. In response to the many people who helped me get here, I should say at least these two things: I promise to make the most of it, and thank you.

Sincerely Yours,
John Stephens

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