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Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya

Br. John Mary Lugemwa, OSB

Brother John Mary is a brother at Mary Mother of the Church Abbey in Richmond, Virginia, and is currently studying for the priesthood at Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania

Having fun at the Bujagali Waterfalls in Jinja, Uganda

Having fun at the Bujagali Waterfalls in Jinja, Uganda

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 weeks.

Brother John Mary's mother hosts students at her home in Masaka, Uganda

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 hospices.

In Uganda 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

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.

Hope Integrated Academy

Murambi Memorial Site in Rwanda

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.

Clothing of Rwandan genocide victims

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 Murambi Memorial Center 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.

Wherever you 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."

Our living 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 epidemic.

HIV/AIDS: A Challenge to Awaken the Community Spirit and Global Solidarity

The AIDS 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.

The home-based 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.

Because of 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.

ARVs (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.

Another major 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.

The AIDS 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.

The education 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 Lugemwa, OSB
Director, Africa AIDS Serving-Learning Program

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










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