CHAPEL HILL - There are about 120,000 children younger than 14 living with HIV or AIDS in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Monica's immune system began unraveling before she turned 12.
In the 1990s people didn't talk about why. Monica's parents were among them. There was no medicine to treat it anyway, so she lived unaware.
Her story is now a song."A secret is merely an untold truthThat easily turns toxic with time when keptThe secret in our hearts you kept in your blood ..."
Monica's story is part of the album "Mau A Malawi: Stories of AIDS," produced by UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus and Irish fiddler Andrew Finn Magill and Malawian musician and songwriter Peter Mawanga.
Each story - 10 in all - is sung in English and Chichewa, the language of Malawi.
They're meant to be listened to together, Magill says, as a journey through Malawi, to bridge lives and statistics and create conversations about AIDS across the United States, Malawi and the world.
Putting names and faces on a syndrome that has killed and debilitated so many is powerful, said Irving Hoffman, associate professor of infectious disease at UNC Medical School and international director of Project-Malawi, a research, care and training program created to reduce the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
"HIV in America has really fallen into that category as a chronic disease that people don't hear much about anymore," Hoffman said. "In Africa, though great strides have been made ... there's still a lot of room to improve there."First language
Andrew Finn Magill, 24, started the fiddle at 10, playing traditional Irish songs, what he calls his "first musical language."
He moved into jazz and swing fiddle, then decided to move past melodies to African rhythms.
A study-abroad trip to Ghana through UNC-CH grew a passion for finding a new way to talk about AIDS.
"People don't respond to NIH [National Institute of Health] jargon," he said. "What people respond to is images and stories."
So Magill went to Malawi to get the stories.
He developed the idea of an album of stories in song, and received a $26,500 Fulbright-mtvU grant, and a $10,000 Ideablob.com
online grant to fund the project.
He then spent 11 months in Malawi, based in the capital city of Lilongwe, interviewing people affected by AIDS with the help of Project-Malawi.
About 90 percent of Malawi's 13 million people work as farmers.
Life expectancy at birth is currently estimated to be 36.6 years for men and 37.6 years for women, according to the UNC School of Medicine.
About 12 percent of the population between 15 and 49 has HIV/AIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the highest rates in African, Magill says.
Magill and Mawanga hope their album becomes a pivot point in the way AIDS is looked at in African countries like Malawi but also in the United States.
"I think that's the real power of this album," Magill said. "We want to share those stories because those are the stories that will really grab you and make it home for people here."
The emotions associated with stigma and shame and loneliness are universal, he said.
"We really want people to understand that this is something that truly affects everyone, even though this Malawian village might be 6,000 miles away," he said.Recording stories
Magill used an audio recorder to take down the stories of Monica, Ezra and Madalitso and others on the album.
He turned quotes into lyrics, and then he and Mawanga created the music to illustrate each life in a way words couldn't.
The process helped Mawanga remember how he felt before daily funeral processions dulled the shock of the virus' tragedies. As Magill experienced those emotions for the first time, he shared them with Mawanga, who was then able to poetically describe them in Chechewa.
"It helped me a lot with writing the stories because I'd take his emotions, the way he'd view things and connect them," Mawanga, 33, said. "That would connect me with how I felt originally."
Madalitso, another of the children on the album, was 9 when his mother abandoned him. Then his dad died in a truck accident.
Now 18, he is living with AIDS and taking care of his 13-year-old brother, Joseph.
"I have HIV/AIDS, but I don't care about that. I don't care about that because I stay with my brother Joseph," he says.
He wants to be a photographer and makes money by taking wedding photos.
He walks gingerly in the streets of Lilongwe, head bobbing, bow tie on and singing, even as he passes residents burning garbage to get rid of it.
"He's just infinitely endearing," Magill said.
The pair hung out often while the album was produced, got lunch together, played pool. When Mawanga and Magill had trouble finding a way to finish his song, they had Madalitso come into the studio and tell his story on the album."My brother is negative, no HIV. Me, myself I'm happy because blessings is all over."Still taboo
Testing for HIV/AIDS has become more acceptable in Malawi, but talking about one's status is still largely taboo, Mawanga said.
UNC's Malawi Project spreads messages about women's prenatal heath and AIDS prevention through dramatizations and songs; it's the most effective way to create discussion among rural Malawians.
"They have these songs that all the women sing and learn right away about taking care of their baby and taking their vitamins," said Hoffman.
The album follows a wave of new drugs being broadly distributed and growing hope for a vaccine.
"I think this particular time in history for HIV is a huge turning point and a very optimistic time," he said.
Magill and Mawanga will launch the album and perform songs and show parts of a documentary filmed about the project Friday at Memorial Hall on the UNC-CH campus.
"It gives me hope," Mawanga said. "I know that somebody's story is being told and somebody can now stand up and say, 'You know what he's saying is what I've gone through' ... it becomes a testimony for so many people."
Like for Monica, the girl who never knew the name of the virus that killed her."Sleep little girl, sleepThe secret can't hurt you no moreThe secret in our hearts you kept in your bloodA terrible secret claimed you in your youth"From my mouth now the secret leaksInto your grave I hope it seepsSorry for not telling what we all knewFor both our secret and the silence claimed you"