The Fight Against HIV/AIDS Still Rages After 25 Years
Sunday, November 23, 2008

World AIDS Day is on December 1st.  It's an important day of commemoration throughout the world to remember those who have died, to pray for those still suffering, and to come together in solidarity to fight the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today.

In the United States, AIDS is still somewhat invisible. Because of this, AIDS in the United States is an out-of-sight and out-of-mind phenomenon.  Unfortunately, AIDS is alive and well in the United States and in the Greater Lansing area. An estimated one million people are currently living with HIV in the United States, with approximately 40,000 new infections occurring each year.  Seventy percent (70%) of these new infections occur in men and 30 percent occur in women.  By race, 54 percent of the new infections in the United States occur among African Americans, and 64 percent of the new infections in women occur in African American women.

Many don't know people with HIV/AIDS or have ever known anyone who has died from HIV/AIDS.  However, AIDS invisibility doesn't deny its existence.
It's quite different in Africa though, specifically Sub-Saharan Africa.  In most countries there, everyone has had either a family member or friend who has died from AIDS. Over 42 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, and 74 percent of these infected people live in sub-Saharan Africa, it's hard to not be affected one way or the other.
In January of 2008, Lansing resident Chris Singer began working with an organization called the Nyaka AIDS Orphans School.  Nyaka is based in East Lansing, MI but operates two schools for AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children in southwestern Uganda. 

Nyaka was the brainchild of Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, who grew up in the village of Nyakagyezi in Uganda.  In the 1980's and 90's, Uganda had one of the world's highest rates of HIV infection with estimates ranging from 18 to 30%.  Like many Ugandans, Jackson has a personal connection with HIV/AIDS as his oldest brother and sister both died from AIDS. 

One of the huge issues surrounding HIV/AIDS in Uganda and other sub-Saharan African countries is the problem of orphans.  There are over 12.2 million orphans due to HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa.  In Uganda alone, there are over 2 million.

The Nyaka AIDS Orphans School began in 2001 and is a community development project offering free education, quality meals, water and health care to orphans and other vulnerable children.  Nyaka isn't an orphanage but rather a full primary school with Primary Levels 1-7 and 206 students.  Nyaka is located in a remote, rural village in Kanungu District, one of the poorest states in Uganda.  With a population of over 300,000, there's only one physician in this district.  Roads and other infrastructure needs are severely underdeveloped and despite three growing seasons and an abundant food supply, most people are struggling to survive with an average income of less than $3 per month.

A second primary school, called Kutumba, was developed in 2007 in the nearby district of Rukingiri.  This school has Primary Levels 1-3 and 93 students.  Each year an additional classroom will be added until there are seven primary levels at the school.

Singer was able to visit both schools in March of 2008.  Nyaka is about a nine-hour drive from Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. 

Singer said, “Uganda looks nothing like the Africa you see in television and movies.  It's almost hard to believe you're in Africa at all.  Being located close to the equator, this part of Uganda is a tropical green paradise with rolling hills and a dusty clay soil that leaves a dense cloud of red following each vehicle.”

Singer's first trip to Nyaka was a way for him to learn firsthand about the organization and the work being done.  For five days, he immersed himself into school activities.  A Nyaka day begins by getting up and joining the students every morning for songs and announcements at their amazing morning assemblies.  One day he spent going from classroom to classroom. 
After visiting the classrooms, word had spread that Singer wasn't just a visitor.

“I was a Nyaka employee from the United States.  I was taken aback when I would walk into a classroom and saw all activity stop as the students stood and greeted me with applause and smiles.   I spent lots of time with the children, getting to know them and some of their stories.  What I experienced was beyond anything I have ever seen,” said Singer. 

There were many students who made a huge impact on Singer.  There was Sensio whose smiling face he remember so strongly from the first day he entered his first Nyaka classroom.  Sensio is a Primary Five student and one of the top students in his class.  Not only is he a talented student, but also is an extremely talented singer, actor, and dancer.
 
Singer said, “What I remember most though is his gratitude.  I gave Sensio a package of Hanes underwear.  His response was akin to winning the lottery.  He showed so much gratitude that remembering his showmanlike abilities and talents; I almost thought it wasn't genuine.  Then the next morning, he brought me a thank you note and told me how he and his brothers and sisters were so thankful for the gift that they sat together and prayed for me before going to sleep.”

One of Singer's most amazing experiences was a chance encounter he had one day during a local football (soccer) match between Nyaka and another primary school in the community.  While the game was going on, he walked around checking things out.  Unlike at Nyaka, many of the children there were not so used to seeing whites (or “Muzungus” as they say in Swahili) and he would hear whispers of the word as he walked by.

Singer said, “I happened upon a group of children running around a girl.  They were pointing and laughing at her so I decided to walk over and see what was going on.  As I got closer to the girl, the commotion stopped and many of the kids ran away leaving me alone with this girl and her young friend (who turned out to be her sister).  Upon seeing this little girl, I understood immediately what was happening.  Her young face was horribly scabbed and disfigured and was being ridiculed by the other children.  I immediately knew she had suffered terrible burns.”

Despite his own inner shock at her appearance, Singer said he never lost the smile on his face as he greeted her. 

“She was incredibly shy, as she probably wasn't used to a positive reaction to her disfigurement and most likely had never spoken with a Muzungu before.  I spent some time with her and learned she had been burnt when a lamp she was carrying in her home tipped over and the paraffin wax got on her clothes and set her on fire.  I held her hand and told her how sorry I was,” said Singer.

Because the young girl did know some English, Singer knew she had been in school.    From what he knew about her culture and had personally witnessed, he knew her life would be an awful struggle.  There's lot of prejudice in Uganda against physical deformities and disabilities.  Many people carry on old wives tales and myths that physical deformities and disabilities are a result of being cursed by God.  People refuse to come into contact with people for fear of being cursed themselves.
 
Singer had an idea to uplift the little girl spirit, whose name is Justine, and asked to take her picture.“

“When I asked and got permission from her to take her picture, an amazing thing happened.  I didn't notice at first but as I began to talk with Justine and hold her hand and give her a little hug, a crowd of children began to surround us.  After I took her picture, I asked the other children if they wanted a picture with Justine.  About five or six children said yes and got close to Justine for a picture.  Maybe my spending time with Justine put away some of those irrational fears and myths,” said Singer.  

Although Justine isn't an AIDS orphan Singer knew that Nyaka could help her.  They have other disabled children at their  school because they know that due to prejudice and overcrowding in the government schools, they will not receive the kind of attention they deserve.  Their school inspector met Justine and her family and as of last term, Justine is a Nyaka student in Primary Level 2.

You're forever changed when you go to another country and see how life is such a struggle while at the same time you see a joy and happiness that seems unattainable and unimaginable to find if we look at it through our privileged eyes stated Singer.

Despite the wonderful things going on at Nyaka, Singer lamented that there are still challenges to face.  He said that we all must continue to meet the health, nutritional, and educational needs of our children regardless of where you live.

“After my visit, I learned firsthand what Twesigye Jackson Kaguri means when he talks about Nyaka providing life to these children.  This is definitely no exaggeration.  Nyaka is truly a refuge of hope and love for these orphaned children.  There's a sign on the grounds at Nyaka, which is one of my favorites and is also loved by the children.  It simply says, 'Smile God Loves You.'  The children's smiles, singing, and praying at morning assembly is a testimony to the heart and determination of these children. If I could only bottle that spirit to bring back to the United States for us to see and be so inspired here in our local communities - now that would be something to see,” said Singer.

To be inspired to learn more about Nyaka and maybe even considering giving to Nyaka in commemoration of World AIDS Day visit them at:  www.nyakaschool.org.

Editor’s Note:  For more
photos of the Nyaka school children, please visit www.tncp.net.

 

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