Uganda has been praised for being among the first African countries to raise awareness about AIDS. But while it has managed to slow the infection rate of the AIDS virus, HIV, it cannot stop the spread of the disease altogether. As in many sub-Saharan countries, the number of AIDS orphans continues to rise in Uganda as young adults succumb to the disease. In the town of Jinja, about an hour and a half drive east of the capital, Kampala, one man decided he had to do something to help.
Sam Tushabe was a 25-year-old mission worker in 1995 when he found his calling. He says it came to him while walking the streets of Nairobi, Kenya. And what he saw made him cry.
He says, "I was in Nairobi one morning and I saw a child on a heap of garbage and he was looking for something to eat. And when I looked at this boy – I mean this is a picture I had seen several times even back in Uganda – but that day there was something special about a child not having anything to eat and is on a garbage can."
When he returned to Uganda, he again came face to face with the tragedy of AIDS. "One morning, he says, "I was in Jinja and there was this lady who was telling a story about how she had eight children. Only three were her own. Five of them had been brought to her because her relatives had died. And so they kept bringing the children. And now they had just brought a ninth child that morning. And she was crying. She didn’t know what to do with this child."
That child was the first AIDS orphan Sam Tushabe helped. He told the woman while he could not take the child to live with him, he could buy some food and clothing. Soon, he was helping to care for ten orphans, raising money by selling home made greeting cards and batiks. But it wasn’t enough.
He says, "There was nothing I was going to do that was going to raise enough money to take over ten children to school. And also take care of myself and a lot of other things. So I began writing to different people. I wrote to people I went to school with. I wrote to my church. I live about 600 miles from the church that brought me up. I wrote them and told them what I was doing and told them I needed support for this."
His organization, AIDS Orphans Education Trust, has been surviving on donations ever since. However, he says without a steady income, it is impossible to expand programs or even know how much money is available from week to week. Despite that, 230 children are now under the organization’s care.
He says the aim is to keep orphans in the homes of relatives, but supply them with education, training, food and medical care.
"When a child grows up in an orphanage they grow up institutionalized,m" he says. "And so they miss out on the father-mother figures. The orphanages have done great. I’ve seen several people from orphanages that have been very successful. But the truth is right now this country needs children that are parented."
But Mr. Tushabe says helping the children is not enough. He says the caregivers also need a helping hand.
"As we worked with orphans, it became very clear to us we needed to do something with the widows," he says. "Because sometimes you pay for a child to go to school – and because they didn’t have anything to east last night – one of the reasons being the widows are unable to afford the food – the husband died and she doesn’t work – they tell you he is not going to be able to go to school even though you’ve paid for the schooling and you’ve given the child the clothing."
As a result, widows are now learning how to use computers and sewing machines and to make arts and crafts.
Mr. Tushabe says AIDS is spreading quickly to the rural areas, as people leave the cities once they learn they are infected with HIV. He also says circumcisions with unclean instruments and wife inheritance are also contributing to the pandemic.
He says the number of orphans and widows will continue to grow. And he is hoping a charitable group will give him a grant to continue his work on a larger scale.