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Out of Africa

Out of Africa


Advocate cover subjects John August and Ryan Reynolds traveled to Africa to help build an orphanage in Malawi. August took these candid shots of their journey.

The day after we recorded our interview for The Advocate, Ryan Reynolds and I flew to Malawi--a land-locked country in southern Africa. A former British colony, it is now one of the poorest nations on earth. It's been especially hard-hit by HIV/AIDS, losing a huge portion of its 20- to 40-year olds. Young parents, especially. It's now a nation of children and old people.

Friends of Mulanje Orphans (FOMO) runs 10 centers, providing services to 4,000 orphans. Ryan and I visited to help repair and repaint the Gulumba Centre and to meet the kids who are doing remarkably well in remarkably difficult circumstances.

Photo-op The man in the suit is head of tourism for Mulanje. Man, I don't envy his job.

Gulumba Center Four rooms. No water, no power. Feeds 300 orphans a day.

Tough guy I tripped while chasing an orphan. Seriously. The red dirt roads really do feel like bricks when you hit them.

Blue plate special The danger of having a white guy in a shot with a bunch of smiling African orphans is that it implies he brought them the food. He didn't--not directly, and not through any international aid program. The kids are eating because of a local, self-directed program.

We also visited medical clinics in hope of establishing a presence for U.S. Doctors for Africa. Treatable diseases like malaria are a huge threat, and the lack of medicine and infrastructure is crippling.

For all its problems, Malawi is incredibly beautiful, as are its people. It's like an island nation without an ocean.

Looking back, I'm glad I wasn't better prepared. If I'd researched all the information about global poverty, AIDS, and malaria, I would have gone in looking for facts and pseudo-facts to validate what I'd read. My ignorance let me look at things as they were and feel emotions without trying to rationalize them away. Through it all, I was incredibly grateful to have Ryan there.

Sing-along Having a 2-year-old at home was a big help. This is, "Way up in the sky, the little birds fly..." It's some of my best work.

Signs Honesty in haircutting

The champions FOMO's A team beat the B team, 3-2. Considering that they're older and much more experienced, it would have been a humiliating loss. It all seems so normal, yet remember these are all orphans. They eat one meal a day. They sleep on the floors of other people's houses.

The morning agenda Ryan and FOMO founder Mary Woodworth, planning the day ahead. First stop: the water department, to see about getting the water working.

It's tempting to try to equate what's happening in Africa with the American experience, but it's a mistake. Our poor people don't forage for roots in a famine. The African AIDS crisis is of a completely different scale and time line. After a church service, the orphans--my orphans--got pamphlets in Chichewa with a red AIDS ribbon on the front. I was excited until I realized there were only Bible verses printed inside. Cultures move at their own speed, and my frustration can't change that.

If there's a commonality I saw, it was the way the orphans of Malawi have banded together. Lacking parents and traditional families, they take care of each other. That's long been part of the queer experience. For generations, gays and lesbians were virtual orphans, disowned by their families. That's changing, quickly. My hope for Malawi, for Africa, is that this upcoming generation can be the last of its kind. If this generation of orphans begets another generation of orphans, we'll have all failed.

Digital cameras are magic The two official languages are English and Chichewa, but most young kids don't really speak much English. Cameras are universal, however.

And she had a sister Children's clothes in Malawi are invariably donations from Europe. Matching sets are surprisingly common, probably because of store overstock.

Spackling Sanding the walls released massive amounts of dust. Fortunately, the walls were coated with lime, rather than lead-based paint. (At least, this is what we choose to believe.)

At work The kids were surprisingly good about staying outside, out of harm's way.

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