I stood at the top of the ravine, looking down in shock at the car smashed up below. I’d had vivid dreams before I came to Uganda that I would die on this trip and my husband had even suggested that I cancel. But because I felt called to help some of the world’s neediest children, I had fought down my fears and gotten on the plane.
Now I was living my nightmare. My Ugandan guide, Samuel, lost control of his friend’s car on a dirt road deep in the jungle. After fishtailing repeatedly on the packed red dirt, the car fell fifteen feet down a ravine, landing on its side. Fortunately, neither Samuel, his soldier cousin nor I were badly hurt. After shimmying out of a window and rescuing my ripped suitcase from the trunk, I climbed back up to the road.
In the quiet of the jungle, I felt frightened and alone. I was probably the only white woman in 100 miles in any direction, and my nerves were not soothed by the sixteen Ugandan men who soon materialized out of the jungle carrying viciously-sharp machetes. They were there to help, but it took awhile before I knew this for sure.
Hours later, after riding an old mini-van packed with over a dozen Ugandans to the western town of Fort Portal, I finally relaxed and was able to focus on why I was in Uganda.
For several years, I had been feeling extraordinarily blessed. I was happily married and loved watching our four healthy, active children pursue their various interests. In addition, my husband and I had both started several entrepreneurial ventures and his latest company was showing signs of becoming quite profitable. Since I believe “to whom much is given, much is expected”, I felt called to do something to give back. And what really tugged at my heart was the plight of the children in developing countries who were starving and unable to attend school because their parents had died. So I planned visits to a number of different organizations helping orphans in both Kenya and Uganda to learn first-hand the best way my newly-formed non-profit, the Alliance for Youth Achievement, Inc. (AYA), could help.
This first trip to Africa shocked me to my core. During the week I spent in Kenya’s teeming capital in August 2000, I was deeply horrified by the large numbers of street boys (and an occasional girl) hanging out in the streets. The children were everywhere, wearing filthy clothes that hung off them in shreds, and almost all of them had bottles of glue in their mouth or held under their nose. And they were so young! Most of the kids seemed to be seven to twelve years old. What had life dealt these kids? Would any of them have any kind of a positive future?
The children sniffed glue in order to dull their hunger pangs. This highly-addictive behavior causes permanent brain damage as well as heart, kidney and liver problems. Early one morning I saw a pre-teen boy sniffing glue along the highway, staggering in circles before falling flat on his face. Another noontime I stepped over a seven-year-old boy asleep on the sidewalk by a busy market. And during the evening, I saw groups of kids huddled for warmth and safety around a fire they’d made on the sidewalk, the firelight reflecting off their young faces. A newspaper article I read claimed there were 600,000 children trying to survive on the streets of Nairobi. Now I saw it for myself. My horror kept me tossing and turning night after night, trying to imagine what life was like for a young child who was cold, hungry and totally alone in the world.
Orphans with a relative willing to take care of them were better off than those forced to live on the street, but they also had serious challenges. Half of all Kenyan orphans dropped out of school within a year of the death of a parent because they could no longer pay to attend. Government schools wouldn’t accept students if they couldn’t afford school fees, a uniform and school supplies.
There were numerous “informal” schools spread throughout the slums, but usually they had no desks, textbooks or writing materials. I was appalled to repeatedly observe dozens of children sitting on dirt floors in roof-less classrooms, packed in like sardines, trying desperately to learn arithmetic without the benefit of worksheets or books. And I was visiting on good days when the teacher actually showed up to teach; being unpaid, they often didn’t.
After leaving teeming Nairobi for rural Uganda, I found different, but similarly horrifying, problems. Uganda was the first country where the AIDS epidemic exploded out of control. Since it was predominantly young adults who were infected, huge numbers of young parents died. By the time of my first visit in 2000, it was estimated that two million Ugandan children under the age of 15 had been orphaned and 8.5% of the remaining adult population was HIV-positive. Any country would be impossibly burdened by caring for so many destitute children and sick adults, let alone a desperately poor country of only 20 million people.
After their own children die, elderly Ugandans often have no choice but to raise large numbers of their children’s children. Since the African tradition is for the elderly to be cared for by their adult children, these grandparents are usually destitute. It is not uncommon to find a grandmother trying to care for a dozen grandchildren with no money to feed them or send them to school. Most families in this situation are lucky to eat one meal a day, and many of the children I saw were severely stunted. At one grandmother’s hut, I was shocked to be told that their youngest child, who I assumed to be two years old, was actually six!
At one point I was able to talk to nine orphans affiliated with one of the organizations we were planning to partner with. They were very sweet even though only one of the nine children had shoes. When I asked them what they would most like as a Christmas present, their answers broke my heart. Most said a pair of shorts or a dress or a pair of shoes. Two asked for a doll, and one for a toy car. I couldn’t help but contrast these answers with the video games and ski equipment my own children were asking for that Christmas, bringing home the poverty these children were experiencing in a very personal way.
So everywhere I went, I looked for organizations that had developed innovative, cost-effective ways to help the children. I was particularly impressed with an Association Francois Xavier Bagnoud (AFXB) project in Luweero, Uganda which gave the neediest guardians of orphans a one-time $100 grant to start an income-generating project.
I learned the amazing impact such a small grant could have when I visited a young mother named Night Nakutude. Four years earlier, she had been completely destitute after her husband was kidnapped in the war. With five young children and no way to support them, she received a $100 grant which she used to buy a bull. After it doubled in value, she sold it and bought a heifer. The heifer gave birth four times. Night sold three of the calves to buy a cross-breed cow that produced more milk. When I was there, Night was collecting 8 liters of milk a day from her cow and was fattening up the fourth calf. She kept 2 liters of milk a day for her family’s use and sold the other 6 liters, making about $600 per year from milk sales. In a country where the average household income was only $300 per year, this made her a wealthy woman. She was able to send all of her children to school, and her profits had allowed her to branch out into growing coffee and rearing pigs.
In the ten years since this first eye-opening trip to Africa, AYA has partnered with almost 100 different organizations helping children in eight countries in Africa and Asia. We’ve duplicated AFXB’s income generation project in Fort Portal, Uganda, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of the over 300 guardians of orphans whose lives have been transformed by our $100 income-generating grant. AYA has instituted an innovative child sponsorship program, built 6 group homes, funded anti-retroviral therapy for HIV-positive children, and given $60 loans to enable urban guardians to start businesses. We have helped 19 schools build classrooms, bought textbooks for 40 schools, and helped dozens of schools pay their teachers through one-of-a-kind school fee sponsorships covering more than 6,000 students. We've trained over 200 non-formal school teachers, provided clean water to more than 1000 children and their families, and funded over 45 income-generating projects for AYA partner homes and schools. Because AYA is a labor of love, we’ve guaranteed that 95% of the funds contributed by our generous donors reach developing world countries to transform the lives of orphaned children. If you share our concern for these truly-needy children, please visit www.allforyouth.org and join us.
The needs of the world can be overwhelming. But if each of us tackles our fears and does something in the arena that speaks most personally to us, together we will make a dramatic difference. For as Margaret Mead challenges us: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”.