(Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Serlemitsos directs CCP’s global, USAID-funded Breakthrough ACTION project. At the time of Elijah Cummings’ 1997 visit, she was CCP’s Chief of Party for Zambia.)
I was so sorry to learn of the death last week of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the congressman from the district that includes the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs. He was taken from us far too soon. I had the privilege of hosting him on a visit to Zambia more than two decades ago, even having him over for dinner at my home, and it remains one of the highlights of my career.
I still have vivid memories of Dec. 1, 1997 when Cummings joined us for World AIDS Day events in Zambia alongside the Hon. Katele Kalumba, the country’s Minister of Health at the time. It was at the peak of the worldwide HIV epidemic, but still early in the type of widespread awareness we have today. Cummings arrived in Zambia as the minister’s guest and he came without an entourage. It was just him and his chief of staff, making him very approachable and seemingly even more engaged. They were in the country on a trip sponsored by PAI, a family planning NGO, and organized by CCP, to see some of the family planning work we were engaged in.
Cummings was such a presence. He had a preacher’s voice and stature. He commanded the room. He had your attention and he kept your attention. He exuded grace and compassion for those around him.
On that day, there was a World AIDS Day March Past, what we could call a parade here in the United States. HIV was still something that wasn’t talked about all that much in Africa, despite the damage it was causing. The route of the March Past was a mile or two and I vividly remember Cummings and Kalumba as they snaked through the streets of Lusaka, hand-in-hand, leading the throng of hundreds of people and raising awareness for the disease that was ravaging the country. It was a powerful moment.
Kalumba clearly felt honored to have such a prominent foreign guest. Later that day, both were guests of honor as we launched our Peers, Partners and Parents program, an initiative designed to engage men in conversations about family planning and HIV with their friends, sexual partners and children. The launch included a soccer match. The level of energy in the stadium was palpable and it was a great example of using entertainment to educate. Entertainment-education is designed to help important health messages stay with people for a long time. Perhaps that is why that day still sticks with me.
That evening, there was a big dinner held in Cummings’ honor. On the stage was a long table, including many important people from Zambia, as well as Cummings, his chief of staff and me, on the very end. As is customary, Kalumba presented a gift to his guest, encased in a large box. Cummings passed it to his chief of staff who slid it to me and asked if I could make sure it got back to them in Washington.
The Christmas holidays were coming so I decided not to ship the box back to the United States, but to carry it with me on my visit. I figured maybe I could get extra face-to-face time with the Congressman by bringing the still unopened box to his office in D.C. He wasn’t there, but his chief of staff was. We decided it was time to open it. Inside was a gift made from copper, for which Zambia is known. As we reached inside, we found a copper relief of an elephant that appeared charging out of the frame.
We both laughed, knowing that the elephant was the well-known symbol not for Cummings’ political party but for the Republicans.
“That will never hang in this office,” she said.
Although this anecdote felt funny at the time, it feels bittersweet in this moment of sadness, as we mourn the loss of this man, who was one of my heroes.