Thursday, August 21
Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso

Suzanne had seen so many children growth-stunted by HIV that she had a warped perception of how big kids should be for their age.

The doctor prepared me to meet Jean, an 18-year-old patient, by explaining he looked like he was 10. In reality, he barely passed for an 8-year-old.

Most kids in West Africa who contract HIV from their mother during birth don’t survive until their teenage years. But Jean had defied the odds, staying relatively healthy aside from his young appearance, years after both his parents died. For some reason, HIV had long remained dormant in his body.

But not any more. Now he’s one of the sicker patients at the pediatric AIDS clinic in Bobo-Dioulasso. Jean is fighting lymphoma, amongst the other ailments that have targeted his weakened immune system.

I was visiting the clinic this week because it’s run by doctors with the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative, which is based in Houston. Jean happened to stop by — not for a check-up, just to say hi — during my visit, and so Suzanne suggested we take her patient to the zoo. I think it was more for my benefit than for his.

The “zoo” was largely deserted; we were the only people inside the compound other than a few kids. At the far end, we entered an open cage that was home to a large chimp named Lolita.

Lolita greeted Jean first, then Suzanne, then quickly turned to me, I suppose because I was a new face, or perhaps a new smell. She put her face close to my toes and hung there for a moment, sniffing me out, before slowly running her man-like pointer finger up my leg, coming to a stop at a freckle on my shin. Then she tried to pick it off.

It’s a sign of affection for chimps to take bugs off the skin of those they love, Suzanne explained, and Lolita thought my freckle was a bug.

Lexi with chimp

Lolita the chimp looks both shy and small here. She was neither!

I’ll admit I was a bit freaked out by Lolita’s attention, and when she started picking at a scab on my leg, I shook her off.

But Jean felt completely at ease with her, letting the chimp touch his face, play with his watch, even steal his medicine out of his pocket.

The last time they had visited, Suzanne said, Lolita had touched Jean’s swollen legs, and Jean began to tell the chimp about his illness, how he was very sick but getting better. This chokes me up a bit, picturing the scene: Jean, with little emotional support other than his doctors, longing to share his story, and Lolita, a lonely, chained chimp in a deserted zoo, willing to love him back.