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Loving God's Children: Jesuits in East Africa
By Father Donald Dunson
The Christmas spirit lasts all year round at Uganda's Children and Life Mission and Kenya's Nyumbani, homes for youth orphaned by AIDS.

Q U I C K S C A N

First Stop: Namugongo, Uganda
Search and Rescue Mission
Let Children Be Children
Second Stop: Karen, Kenya
Abandoned to AIDS, Adopted in Love
Tragedy and Success
In the Faces of Children, the Future Unfolds
Counting the Casualties

 

Photo by Don Doll, S.J.

Ugandan streetchildren gather around Jesuit Father Gene Hattie, who invites them to come to CALM before they choose drugs to ease their pain.

I have witnessed East Africa exploding in spasms of pain. The youngest are first to fall. I have met former child soldiers who were kidnapped and thrown into war in southern Sudan. They were told that their gun is now “their mother, their best friend, their everything.” I have encountered streetkids in Uganda who walk aimlessly on the streets, totally abandoned. I have ministered with AIDS orphans in Kenya who watched helplessly as everyone they have ever loved was torn away from them through death.

Amidst all this intractable pain, I have also met two remarkable priests who embrace African youth with the gift of hope. From them I learned that all humanity’s children are our children, including those who suffer and die at a great distance from us. Indeed, we share responsibility for them—guilt for their plight and accountability for their rescue. This is a story about two ministers of the gospel who embody the love and concern of Jesus for humanity’s most vulnerable.

First Stop: Namugongo, Uganda

The Children and Life Mission (known commonly as CALM) is just a short walk from where the 13-year-old Kizito, the youngest of the Ugandan martyrs, was burned alive in 1886 by the Bugandan King Mwanga. Here, approximately 120 young people are today being loved back into life. Each has suffered the devastating loss of parental love.

Prior to coming to this mission, these youngsters, boys between six and 13, tried to forge an existence on their own in the bustling streets of Kampala, Uganda’s vastly overcrowded capital city. For some, cruelty and abuse at the hand of their own fathers pushed them out of the family home and onto the streets.

The AIDS pandemic and malaria made many orphans in this region of the world. The sad reality is that families, who were unable or unwilling to care for them for many reasons, abandoned many of these youngsters.

Circumstances far beyond their control made them streetkids, forcing them to become self-reliant at a tender age. The one thing they could not provide for themselves was love.

Enter Jesuit Gene Hattie, an 82-year-old priest with the energy of a man half his age. I walked the streets of Kampala with Father Hattie. I noticed the children’s eyes light up with recognition and friendship when they see him approach.

Crowds walk by these children every day. Many adults are frightened, judging them to be thieves and a threat to their security. Father Hattie sees something else: humanity’s future struggling forward. He is determined to find a way to reach them with a loving solidarity strong enough to reclaim promise in their young lives.

Father Hattie founded CALM because of what he witnessed on the streets of Kampala. He told me, “At times it almost brings tears to my eyes when I see one of these kids take a small banana given him by a tourist and break it into six or seven pieces to share. These kids will pass around an ice-cream cone or bottle of Coca-Cola so each can have a small lick or sip. They will share a discarded newspaper or torn piece of plastic to use as a blanket on Kampala’s streets.”

The ultimate abdication of moral responsibility toward these streetchildren took place when President Bill Clinton and his family visited the city. Clinton was the first sitting American president to visit Uganda. Before he arrived, hundreds of streetchildren were rounded up and put into prison so that the nation’s prominent visitors would not be subjected to any eyesores.

The sentiment of the day was that the national scourge had to be removed from the streets. The children were imprisoned and kept out of sight until the Clintons had left the country. Seeing this, Father Hattie went to work.

It was not moral outrage that prompted this American priest to act on their behalf. Rather, it was the unspoken appeal in their eyes, the look of innocence lost etched in their tired faces, the look of a child of God yearning to be loved.

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Search and Rescue Mission

The most prevalent danger at the present moment for the children still on the streets is that drug use will strangle their young lives before adult help reaches them. There is always the temptation to escape into this temporary comfort.

On Kampala’s streets I observed many younsters huddled together in small groups and holding a piece of cloth to their noses. I initially thought they had the flu. Father Hattie explained that most of the children he has dealt with sniff mafuta, the local name for a form of kerosene. They keep a small bottle of mafuta in a pocket and a small rag on which they sprinkle the liquid.

I asked a 14-year-old boy living on the streets to help me understand what draws him and his companions to use drugs. He was brutally honest: “I cannot survive on the streets without using drugs. There are different types of drugs that I normally use. I take marijuana, mafuta, glue, tobacco, mairungi (an herb that is chewed) and alcohol. These drugs give me relief and let me forget my worries and problems. They make me feel warm and strong. Others make me sharp and sensitive to danger. If I am sick, they take my pain away, and when I am bored, they give me some excitement.”

In other words, this youngster finds in drugs the protection, joy and companionship that most youth find elsewhere, especially in a loving family. The main reason young people turn down Father Hattie’s invitation to opt out of life on the streets is that they can’t imagine themselves to be drug-free. The Jesuit tries to intervene before the power of addiction controls them.

Father Hattie has sought the help of The Good Samaritan Sisters to care for these children. He also hired several former seminarians to live at the mission and be male role models.

Let Children Be Children

In the summer of 2004, four American seminarians, students of mine from St. Mary’s Seminary in Cleveland, as well as a lay social-justice leader from the Cleveland Diocese, joined me to share in the ministry of Father Hattie. We learned much from these young people as we witnessed their spontaneous response to life and their joyful reception of food, medicine, education, nurture and the touch of love.

Like all children, these boys long to be noticed. Some of them bear the scars of past experiences of being unwanted and neglected. They want to discover that others find them acceptable. They want to play as children should play. They were exceedingly happy with the gifts of playing cards and candies that the seminarians brought for them.

The children flock to Father Hattie when he comes to the mission from his home with his Jesuit brothers at Xavier House in the capital. Father Hattie has fashioned a home for these youth and given them a chance to dream about their future. On their behalf he has gone to America to beg for assistance and support of his mission. He tells their stories to donor groups in the United States who want to be in solidarity with the plight of the vulnerable children.

Every young person I met at CALM senses that life is better for them now because this man set his gaze on them—a gaze of love.

Second Stop: Karen, Kenya

Nyumbani, the first hospice for HIV-positive orphans in Kenya, is certainly a place where the human family is being drawn together. As I arrived at the Nyumbani compound in Karen, a Nairobi suburb named after Karen Blixen, the author of Out of Africa, I knew immediately where the children were lodged. Their voices, raised exuberantly in song, filled the early morning air.

The Swahili word nyumbani means “home.” I soon learned there were some 92 girls and boys, all HIV-positive, who call Nyumbani home. They live in family clusters of 15 to 20. The teenage boys share a cottage of their own under the watchful care of an “uncle.”

This family style of living allows many of the young children to exclaim “my mommy” or “my house” for the first time. Most of the children lost both parents to AIDS while they were still infants or toddlers, long before they had the chance to acquire specific memories of their parents or of parental affection and nurture. Many of them are now old enough to have at least some understanding that the deadly disease that robbed them of their parents now lives inside them. How the disease will unfold in them is still a mystery.

Abandoned to AIDS, Adopted in Love

Jesuit priest and medical doctor Angelo D’Agostino founded Nyumbani in 1992 to care for babies who are abandoned by their families who suspect that the HIV virus has been transmitted to the child. Abandonment is a cruel side effect of the fear that AIDS creates.

At first the Jesuit could accept just three babies, but soon found room for 25. Presently there are nearly 100, while the number of AIDS orphans on the continent mounts. Approximately 15 million children have already been orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. That number is expected to climb dramatically, perhaps even double, in the coming decade.

“Time will prove the absolute necessity of what we do. This is a problem that has never happened in the history of humanity,” Father D’Agostino tells me. The enormity of the tragedy is clear to him in a most personal way.

This gentle healer told me a remarkable story of a child brought to him in 1997. This boy was found in the countryside buried alive up to his neck. “This newborn was likely buried just hours after birth by a distraught mother who just couldn’t kill her child,” Father D’Agostino explains.

“Others discovered this boy and brought the tiny infant to me at Nyumbani when he was just five days old. This child grew strong and was adopted by a local couple.” The adoptive parents are travel agents who have taken their son everywhere with them. In his young life he has already traveled to Japan, to the United States and across Africa. This boy, born desperately poor to a mother who falsely believed that her child was born dying, has been gifted with an abundance of family love.

Nyumbani was born of love. At first, the Jesuit doctor’s quest was simple—to give these children compassionate care and to accompany them in the dying process. In the early years, two or three children would die each month and were buried in the garden at Nyumbani. This is a garden one is sorry to see grow.

As I prayed in this small children’s cemetery, I saw a plaque nailed to a large tree with the inscription: “In the tree of life, all our roots are intertwined.”

Father D’Agostino wants the world to acknowledge its link to these vulnerable children. In caring for each infected child, he cares for all infected children. Their vulnerability becomes his own.

Tragedy and Success

Twelve-year-old brothers, identical twins, arrived at Nyumbani in 1994. They were parentless and had little expectation of a future. Within two weeks, one of these boys had died and his brother was in despair.

The community at Nyumbani literally loved the surviving brother back to life. They adopted a fourfold approach to health care, attending to his nutritional, medical, psychosocial and spiritual needs. He is now 22 and recently learned how to drive a car so he can be of help to the staff at Nyumbani. The success stories at Nyumbani make the tragic stories easier to bear.

The most life-affirming aspect of Nyumbani is undoubtedly the grace-filled tie that binds the members of this community to each other. As children experience family bonds, many for the first time in their young lives, a new reason emerges for them to grow healthy and strong. They are now surrounded by persons who have connected with them in the most personal way in which human beings can relate to one another—the way of family love. There is no substitute for the psychic security that comes from this experience. Visitors to Nyumbani are reminded that love heals more deeply than the body—it also heals the soul.

Father D’Agostino has an expansive dream. He wants to bring together 200 elderly adults with 1,000 orphaned children in what will be called Nyumbani Village. Many outside Africa do not realize that this pandemic has a devastating impact on the elderly all across the continent, especially in Kenya.

In Africa, it is customary for the grown children to provide care for their parents in the final years of their lives. As AIDS robs large numbers of senior citizens of their adult children, there are many who are now forced to fend for themselves.

Father D’Agostino dreams of bringing these two groups together. The children will care for the elders, who in turn will care for them.

Nyumbani Village will be built on 1,200 acres of land near Nairobi. The Vatican has pledged its support. It has issued a new stamp with the image of two African children on it, victims of AIDS. All the profits from this stamp, estimated to exceed 400,000 euros, will go to support Nyumbani Village.

Unquestionably, Father D’Agostino’s ambitions are many: He plans that this village will provide housing, health care, counseling, education and vocational training for both the children and their elders. Most of the land will be dedicated to agricultural production.

Africa is the only continent to have produced less food in the last two decades than in previous ones. In Nyumbani Village, modern organic farming techniques, as well as organic methods for breeding and raising livestock, will be taught. The hope is not only that the crops will feed Nyumbani Village, but that there will also be a surplus to sell.

Carpentry skills, traditional handicrafts and many other enterprises will be taught to all who want to learn. The elders who have never been given the opportunity to learn to read will be tutored.

Father D’Agostino is convinced that this model could be replicated across the African continent. It would take an enormous commitment by the world community to be in solidarity with humanity’s most vulnerable. Approximately 11 million children under the age of five continue to die each year of hunger and preventable diseases, most of them in the southern hemisphere.

In the Faces of Children, the Future Unfolds

All across our world, children are falling victim to powerful forces beyond their control, forces that sabotage the bright promise tomorrow should bear for them. Never before has the world faced the possibility of so many orphans. The expectation of secure love and hope in the future that is so natural to young children is being replaced by the reality of rejection and near despair when death from AIDS robs millions of children of their parents.

The dream of Nyumbani Village in Kenya offers an alternative to this nightmare. The welcome received at CALM provides another.

In the faces of children, we are given the best glimpse of humanity’s future. This is why there can be no moral issue more unifying, more urgent or more universal than nurturing their well-being and securing their future.

Just ask Father Gene Hattie. Just ask Father Angelo D’Agostino. They have rallied around the children of East Africa. But they don’t intend to keep their mission to themselves.

To support these mission efforts, contact:

• The Children and Life Mission, c/o Jesuit International Missions, 7303 W. Seven Mile Rd., Detroit, MI 48221, 313-861-7500, www.jesuitdet.org

• Nyumbani, Children of God Relief Fund, Inc., c/o Collier Shannon Scott, PLLC, 3050 K Street, N.W., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20007-5108,
202-342-8488, www.nyumbani.org

 

Counting the Casualties

Maria Cimperman, an Ursuline Sister, teaches moral theology and social ethics at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Sister Maria is the author of the new Orbis book, When God’s People Have HIV/AIDS: An Approach to Ethics, and a friend of Father Donald Dunson, author of this article.

Sister Maria points to UNAIDS December statistics to grasp the current situation:

• An estimated 2.2 million children (under age 15) around the world live with HIV.

• 1.9 million of the children living with HIV are from sub-Saharan Africa.

• 11,000 of the children living with HIV are from North America.

• An estimated 640,000 children (under age 15) were newly infected in 2004.
  - 560,000 were from sub-Saharan Africa.
  - Fewer than 100 of the children were from North America.

• There were an estimated 510,000 AIDS deaths in children under age 15.
  - 450,000 of the deaths were of children in sub-Saharan Africa.
  - Less than 100 of the deaths were of children in North America.

The Rev. Donald Dunson earned his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from The Catholic University of Louvain in 1994. He is a moral theologian on the faculty of St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Wickliffe, Ohio. In 2001, he lived in east central Africa. His award-winning book, No Room at the Table: Earth’s Most Vulnerable Children, published by Orbis Books in 2003, is in its third printing.


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