Still Smiling After the End of the World: Orphaned by AIDS in Uganda

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By Christine Ennulat, ChildFund Senior Manager for Content
Posted on 11/29/2016

Worldwide, about 17 million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS, and nine in 10 of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa. To recognize World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, we would like to introduce you to two of them, from Uganda.

Samuel

This is Samuel. He’s 16.

He lives in northern Uganda, where he is a star student at his school, which he attends on scholarship. His written answers are just about perfect … and barely legible, shivering across the page, because his epilepsy causes him to shake constantly. “You have to be rested when you grade his papers,” says his teacher, Katherine, with a smile.

Samuel is also incredibly shy. He’ll converse, but in a whisper that’s audible only to someone sitting right next to him.

However, he does have one way of communicating that’s as clear and bright as the day. If you nudge him just right.

Samuel

“Don’t smile.”

Samuel

“Don’t smile.”

Samuel

“Don’t smile!”

Samuel

“DON’T SMILE.”

There.

Not long ago, a smile like that was painfully rare, because Samuel’s story is a tough one: His parents both died from AIDS when he was 6, and he spent the next eight years in an orphanage, until it closed. Then he was passed from relative to relative until he finally moved in with his 29-year-old cousin, Stella, and her four children.

Stella, whose husband left years ago, ekes out a living by selling odds and ends at the nearby market. She can’t afford to send her own children to school, so they don’t go. But she has hope, because she recently started receiving some economic assistance for her business and household needs, as well as guidance and support through regular visits from trained para-social (volunteer) workers, under ChildFund’s USAID-funded project called Deinstitutionalization of Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Uganda, or DOVCU.

The project, supported by a $4.4 million grant from USAID as well as funding from generous individual donors, aims to help more than 45,000 Ugandan children either return to or stay with their families. Family separation is an all-too-common problem throughout Uganda, where war, poverty and the HIV epidemic have torn families apart. Unable to feed and school their children, many families relinquish them to orphanages, hoping they’ll receive better care and a quality education there. But this is rarely the case, and many children find themselves in situations with not only subpar care but also cut off from their families and, more broadly, from their heritage and their culture.

Samuel was one of the lucky ones, in some ways: His orphanage met his basic needs and kept him in school, the one he still attends. But he was still away from his family, and when the orphanage closed, he was left with almost nowhere to go. Even Stella, with her meager livelihood, can barely provide for her own family and manage Samuel’s special needs. But despite their struggle, this newly rearranged family is now stable.

DOVCU works to help vulnerable families hold it together well enough to stay together — to address the root causes of separation before it happens, using a case management approach that is specifically tailored to individual families’ situations. Irene and her four grandchildren are another of these families.

The youngest, 9-year-old Sarah, has a smile that she can’t hold inside. Sitting on the straw mat next to Irene, legs folded under her bright red skirt, she grins down at the basket of greens that Irene is stemming for their single meal that day. Then she lifts her gaze, and the sun shines brighter.

Sarah is HIV-positive — she was born with the virus, and both her parents and a baby sister died from it six years ago. Irene, who thinks she is about 80 years old but isn’t sure, has cared for Sarah and her three older siblings ever since, barely scraping by on what she makes by selling small fish in the market.

Sarah

(Sarah is not her real name, and we can’t share a full picture, as much as we wish we could, because HIV still carries great stigma in Uganda, as in most other places.)

Thankfully, the Ugandan government provides Sarah’s antiretroviral medications to control her HIV. But that doesn’t address the fact that she hasn’t been getting adequate nutrition to support her immune system and allow the medication to really do its job. It doesn’t cover the cost of treatment for malaria or infections or diarrhea. It doesn’t give back her missed school days. In fragile health, Sarah misses more school than she attends. “She goes one week, and the next week she’s out,” says Irene.

DOVCU has supported the family in various ways, providing them with the wherewithal to fix their leaky roof; small-business funds that let Irene purchase a pair of geese; the attention and support of a para-social worker, a local minister named Rev. Apollo; and, for Sarah’s 17-year-old brother, Andrew, vocational training in carpentry and joinery, plus the tools he needs to get started.

Sarah’s family is holding it together. And Sarah keeps smiling, even on a day she has stayed home once again, even when asked how she’s feeling, even when she answers, simply, “I want to go to school.”