Having fun at the Bujagali Waterfalls in
In the summer of 2005 I had the
opportunity of traveling with a group of 12 college students from the
College of St. Benedicts/St. John's University, Minnesota, to Africa on a service-learning trip. The main
mission was to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and the African
culture among the American students and also to offer some community
service with the AIDS support organizations working in Africa. We visited Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya for over six
Brother John Mary's mother hosting
students at her home in Masaka, Uganda.
Because none of the students had been to
Africa previously, the trip posed
several challenges to them, but at the same time it brought a lot of
excitement. It was an opportunity for reflection and personal
growth. Most of the experiences in Africa
were nothing like what the students had been exposed to back home.
Personally, I was raised in Africa,
but there was still so much to learn because this trip exposed me to
certain challenges of my motherland Africa
that I had not been exposed to before.
We had the opportunity to visit with HIV
patients in their homes. These home visits were some of the most moving
experiences of the trip. In Uganda and
Kenya there are active home-based care
programs and mobile health care clinics. Patients, excluding those
for which hospitalization is recommended, are cared for by families and
relatives within their homes. The volunteer nurses and doctors reach out
to the rural communities to give out drugs and supplies. AIDS
organizations have an active network of volunteers who do home visits on a
regular basis in order to monitor the effectiveness of the drugs
administered and follow up on the condition of the patients. Such
programs have been a great success, especially in Uganda,
and have helped to sustain lives and prevent the stigma attached to AIDS
and Kenya we visited a number of
orphanages. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has left a large number of
children without parents and no one to take care of them. In some cases
the orphans are supported by their surviving relatives, but it is also
common for the orphans' relatives to be sick themselves, very poor, or
have many children of their own and no capacity to help. As a result,
child-headed homes are a common encounter in Africa.
I was very touched, for instance, by one of the child-headed homes we
visited with two boys 9 and 12 years old. They were orphaned at 3 and 6.
These kids moved me to tears. They work in people's fields to support
themselves with basic needs and school supplies to sustain themselves in
elementary school. They live in a two room grass-thatched house that leaks
during heavy rainy seasons. I was able to give them a few things, and I am
trying to figure out a way to help them better their lives. They are
highly motivated kids. There are generous people who once in a while
support them with little things.
3-Month-Old Baby Boy in Kenyan Orphanage
In the orphanages you can find children
as young as a month old up to age of 15 and above; for instance we found a
3-month-old-boy in an orphanage in Kenya.
Some orphans are linked up with foster parents/homes-these are local
families that generously open up their homes to orphans. The orphan shares
in the life of the family and is shown the parental love and care every
child needs. AIDS' organizations support the foster home in meeting the
needs of the children. The AIDS support organizations are doing their best
to improve the living conditions of these children. We offered small
donations to the children, and in some cases to the organizations, to
support their programs.
As a way of helping, some of us picked
out children to support in school. We want to share the little we have
with these children and restore hope to their lives. Some family members
and friends in the States have also picked up interest in helping and will
be sponsoring a few orphans in Africa
to keep them in school and also support them with some other needs. After
hearing our stories, there are also some families that have expressed a
desire to adopt kids from Africa. So
far we have found sponsors for 27 AIDS' orphans.
For those who might be interested in
making a difference in the lives of these children, you can always let us
know by email
or telephone: (320) 363-3949, and we will be glad to connect you with the
organizations that support orphans. Volunteer opportunities are also
available. One of the organizations was founded by my brother, Peter; it
is called Uganda Rural Community Support Foundation and
has a number of projects that support orphans and children from very poor
families. Children are not only supported in school but are also given
practical skills that can help them become independent adults. To
this effect, the organization operates a number of projects which include:
Arts & crafts, sewing, brick-making, raising cows, pigs, and chickens,
banana plantations, fish ponds, as well as recreation and sports
activities. Besides giving an opportunity for children to learn
practical skills, the projects also generate income to support orphan
programs. The objective here is to make the foundation self-sustaining.
Murambi Memorial Center
Part of the mission of the trip was to
look at the post-genocide situation in
Rwanda; to put a face on what we read
in books, watch on television, and see in videos. The 1994 Rwanda genocide
left 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead at the hands of Hutu
perpetrators. We visited genocide
memorial sites. At Kigali National Memorial Center there is a museum
that takes you through the history of Rwanda
and highlights the roots of the ideologies that culminated into the 1994 genocide, its events, and what is being done
today. Most of the bodies were buried in mass graves. However, there
is one center, Murambi Memorial Center, where over 50,000 people were
killed; the bodies are still in the open. They are displayed in about five
blocks of abandoned classroom buildings. The buildings were built for a
technical school that was abandoned during the genocide.
What one sees at Murambi is beyond human imagination. If you haven't read
anything about the Rwandan genocide,
there are a couple of movies that portray what happened: The Ghosts of Rwanda, Hotel Rwanda,
Some time in April, A 100 Days, and a novel, We Wish to Inform You
that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families.
Murambi Memorial Center
We held meetings with the Executive
Secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission and the
Secretary General for the Ministry of Justice. They both gave us an
account of the history of the conflicts in Rwanda.
Their big challenge now is to foster unity and reconciliation between the
victims and perpetrators. Realizing that the court system could not
be effective in handling the massive genocide
cases, the Ministry of Justice decided to re-instate the traditional court
system known as Gacaca which was in place before the colonial period. The
Gacaca operates on a community level. The communities hear cases and
decide appropriate punishment for the perpetrators which sometimes can be
in the form of community service. For a complete account of the
Gacaca court trials, please watch the video Gacaca: Living together
again in Rwanda.
Brother John Mary at the Murambi Memorial
Center in Rwanda
From these meetings we learned that in
the pre-colonial history of Rwanda,
there was nothing like the Tutsi or Hutu tribes; these tribal identities
were invented by the colonialists (Belgians) for the purpose of
administration, as was everywhere in Africa,
employing the divide-and-rule strategy used by most colonial powers.
If you had a pointed nose, you were tall and had X number of cows, you
were classified a Tutsi whereas if you had a flat nose, were short,
and were a gardener, you became a Hutu; those were the criterions the
Belgians used to divide up the Rwandan
people. In the past, everyone was simply a Rwandan.
And this makes sense, because even today, in Rwanda
everyone speaks the same language, has the same culture and customs.
This is not typically the case with
other African tribal groups where
every tribe speaks its distinctive language. Today the challenge is to
sensitize the Rwandan people about
this historical fact and to promote a national identity which enables
people to think of themselves as Rwandans
rather than Hutus and Tutsis. It is being done through seminars and
education programs. New ideologies are being integrated in school
curricula, music, drama, and the media.
go you can sense that there is a strong community spirit although it is
gradually dying out in the urban areas. In comparison to western
society, one can argue that most Africans
don't live lives as busy as those of people in the industrialized
countries; therefore, they have time to engage in community activities.
However much this might be true, I strongly believe that the community
spirit and hospitality expressed by the African
societies is deeply rooted in their traditional customs and values.
On arriving at
the airport in Uganda, one would
wonder why over forty people (family and friends) would be waiting to
receive us. In my opinion, Africans
value family and friendship so much, and hospitality is very important to Africans. This was also evident on many of our
home visits. The welcome and hospitality offered us, not only by the host
family but also the people from the neighborhood, was a sign of that warm
community bonding engrained in African
society. Most people do not have much, but the little they have is offered
from the heart. The Baganda tribe of Uganda
have a saying that, "In the house, there is no path; anyone who shows
up in the front yard is welcomed as a guest and should share whatever is
in the house."
arrangements were designed to foster a close interaction between students
and the local people. For a large portion of the trip we stayed in
traditional African village and town
homes. This enriched our experience of African
community living especially in the village settings. We had evening
social sharing with the local people. People would ask questions
about life in America, and the students would ask about Africa, as well as any other issues both sides
were curious about. These meetings were very interesting.
It is not easy to host a crew of 13
people (the students and our driver), but these families never saw us as
an inconvenience; they did their best to make us feel at home. The sick we
visited in their homes were touched by the mere act of being there and
showing that we cared and loved them regardless of whether we gave
something or nothing. Most people were glad to help us in any way
possible, and if it wasn't for their help, I am not sure we would have
been able to accomplish what we did.
From the comments I have received, the
students really made a good impression on the people we met. I am sure
they touched many lives especially the little children with whom
they interacted. To most locals, it was their first close encounter with
Americans (or whites), and they realized there is so much we have in
common as human beings. We didn't go around handing out things but just
the mere presence among the local people meant a lot to them. Some people
could not communicate because of language barriers but deep inside they
treasured those moments the students shared with them. People were happy
to receive us in their homes; most of them had never imagined whites
spending time in their homes - not just spending time, but eating and
spending nights with them.
I am very thankful to all the people,
both in the States and Africa, whose
support made the trip a dream come true. Let us continue to pray for each
other especially for the people of the world who have been affected by the
HIV/AIDS: A Challenge to
Awaken the Community Spirit and Global Solidarity
epidemic has stigmatized Africa for
the past few decades, but it is no longer seen as a problem: It is a
challenge to the African community to
stand as one people in solidarity. And indeed, from my observation, the African people are not just sleeping through
this tragic epidemic; communities have come out to help communities.
Care Programs for HIV/AIDS patients have been successful because of the
community spirit. It creates a strong community and family support
system for patients. Since sensitization by governments, and AIDS
support organizations has removed the stigma associated with AIDS, people
have realized that AIDS should not paralyze their family and community
life, but is a challenge to be addressed through community effort at
different levels. This is why, today, there are not many AIDS
hospices; patients are taken care of by family, relatives, friends, and
the community at large.
this support system, patients no longer feel isolated or neglected as used
to be the case in the early days of the epidemic. In homes, patients are
treated with love and respect. They feel that their dignity is being
preserved regardless of their health status. A sense of belonging, and
feeling loved, is very crucial in maintaining good emotional and
psychological balance. This has helped patients to live longer and develop
a positive attitude toward life. We listened to the testimonials of a
number of HIV/AIDS patients and it was evident that this was one of the
factors in their thinking positively about themselves, regain hope, and
have the strength to go about their lives in a normal way.
(antiretrovirals) have been made accessible in most places and have
greatly improved the lives of many patients and given them hope to live.
However, the challenge still exists. ARVs are commonly accessible in
government health centers which are at a distance to some of the patients.
Some patients cannot afford to travel to the hospital. There is a need for
funding to make the drugs available in enough quantities for all people
who need them in rural areas. There is also a need for well-trained
medical personnel to reach out to the people in remote areas.
challenge is poverty. ARVs may be accessible, but when the patient doesn't
get enough food and other basic needs, the drugs do not do much good
either. Actually this has been one of the catalysts for the spread
of the disease and the high death rates: If the immune system is already
weakened, HIV just breaks it down further. Because of poverty, young girls
seek out old men for the financial support which they can not get from
their poor parents.
At the same
time those who have graduated and can't find jobs fall victims to this
trend of behavior. Besides giving sexual favors to old men for
financial support, young girls also seek love from boys of their age
group, and that's why the disease is so rampant among the youths.
Counseling and HIV testing services are being provided. A number of VCT
(voluntary counseling and testing) Centers are set up, and people are
encouraged to use these services which are often provided free of charge.
There has been a lot of sensitization, and everyone is being encouraged to
go for testing. Counseling is provided to prepare the person for the
test results which may have disastrous psychological impacts. Counseling
continues after testing regardless of the results. Those who test positive
are recommended for appropriate treatment and behavior change to prevent
the spread of the virus to others. Behavior change is also recommended for
those who test negative so that they can maintain that status.
Communities have formed post-test clubs, and membership is open to both
those who tested positive and those who tested negative. The clubs are
active in the community doing sensitization about AIDS prevention and
control especially among the youth, who are the most vulnerable group.
education is done through drama--plays, music, and other forms of
entertainment which carry a positive message to the audience. The Ugandan government has lead this struggle
and is very active in reaching out to the people. It has promoted
different national and community-level programs geared toward this goal of
sensitizing the communities. It is encouraging behavior change, and the
government strongly advocates abstinence, faithfulness to one's partner,
and the use of condoms if the first two efforts fail, as means of
controlling the spread of AIDS. This has contributed to the
substantial dropdown of the infection rate in Uganda
over the years.
programs are extended into schools, youth centers, women's groups,
community clubs, and churches. Governments and churches are working hand
in hand in this campaign because they have a common belief that behavior
change, abstinence, and faithfulness to one's partner are the key to
combatting this epidemic.
Youth centers are very actively involved in HIV/AIDS control and
prevention and street-children's programs. The communities realized that
the youth would have a strong influence on the behavior change of street
children, and youths in general, because, as youths, they have a lot in
common. This is made effective through peer-to-peer programs. The youth
volunteers go out and talk to the street children in a friendly manner and
in a 'language' they can understand well.
It is obvious
that this approach has registered success because a number of street
children have been brought back into communities. Some have returned
to schools, and others have recieved vocational training to acquire skills
that would help them become independent. We had an opportunity to
hear testimonies of a number of these youths who have been reintegrated
into the community after years of street life. They have
sex-and-AIDS-education seminars, recreation and sports activities which
improve skills, and entertainment, but above all, the yough centers create
bonding and positive behavior among the youth. We were very impressed with
what the African youths are doing to
help their fellow youth. They make a sacrifice, but it is changing lives
and shaping the future of their communities.
Br. John Mary
Director, Africa AIDS Serving-Learning
President, Global AIDS Awareness Organization
African Students & Friends of Africa Assn.
St. John's Abbey/University
P. O. Box 2015
Collegeville, MN 56321-2015
Tel. 320. 363. 3949