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NEXT PUBLIC MEETING: May 1 , 7:30 p.m. at Pohick Regional Library. All are welcome.

Why are You Doing This? (really)

I visited the central African nation of Zambia a few years ago to do some reporting and write about the orphan crisis there. Zambia’s population at the time was about 17 million, and half of them were younger than 18. More than a million were orphaned. The result of that trip was a three-part series called “Land of a Million Orphans.”


There were children raising children everywhere I looked in Zambia’s capital city, Lusaka. That’s not hyperbole. It’s as if the Lord of the Flies movie had a running time measured in years.


How did this happen? Zambians explained something to me that was obvious the moment I heard it, and I felt ashamed for not already knowing: When the AIDS pandemic killed tens of millions of adults in central Africa, it left an ocean of children behind. News coverage of AIDS focuses on adults who don’t survive. We don’t think much about the orphaned boys and girls.


But they were on my mind in 2023 when I started hunting for documents related to Silas Burke’s life. What role do children play in this story of slavery?


In Zambia I talked to kids in some of the worst slums, where many pre-teens turn downright feral. They didn’t know where they were from or who their parents had been. Many didn’t know their own birthdays. Some were named by their companions because no one else had done it.


I took hundreds of photos of these children, and I found it inescapable that every last one of them was just as precious and beautiful as my own.


Where in Africa was Fenton’s family tree planted before slave traders ripped it out by the roots? No one knows. But I think of him the way I remember young Zambians like Benjamin, Mary and Richard. And Tamara, whose name means “some loved ones are no longer with us” in a Bantu dialect. They’re all victims of circumstance, and writing about them is probably the only way history will remember them.


I want to make sure Fenton doesn’t disappear from history. His voice is there, in between scribbles of ink, and it matters.

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