Finding Hope in an AIDS Orphanage

A visit to Kenya gave me a connection to the kids I want to help.

By Caroline Matthews

When I first reached Nyumbani, an orphanage for children suffering from HIV/AIDS in Nairobi, Kenya, a little boy named Joseph grabbed me by the hand. He wanted to be the first to show me around.

We walked around the seven-acre plot so Joseph could show me the clinic where he and the other children go when they don’t feel well or to pick up their daily medications.

He showed me the garden where the nuns who care for him send him for time out. He showed me the garden where the nuns who care for him send him for time out. He showed me where the kids store the scooters that were donated to them by Americans. He told me he wanted to introduce me to his friend James.

I assumed that he would take me to one of the cottages; instead he took me to the cemetery where the orphans who could not fight off the disease were buried.

Joseph pointed to his friend’s headstone and explained that they had lived in the same cottage. He told me that James couldn’t get better so now he lives in heaven. Looking at him, I realized how quickly children like Joseph are forced to grow up.

Like many high-school students, I wanted to spend my school break on a service project. I started an AIDS awareness club during my sophomore year to look for ways to raise consciousness about the spread of this preventable disease, not only locally—Washington, D.C., where I live, has one of the highest rates of AIDS in the country—but also in Africa, where the pandemic is wiping out a generation of young parents.

Our club participated in an AIDS walk, helped raise money for the Whitman-Walker Clinic (which offers free HIV testing) and sold African jewelry to benefit the orphans of Nyumbani. In December, I was able to bring our cash and clothing contributions to the orphans and live with them for a week.

Nyumbani, which means “home” in Swahili, was founded almost 14 years ago by Father Angelo D’Agostino, a Jesuit priest, surgeon and psychiatrist who has taught at Georgetown and George Washington universities.

Before anyone was treating HIV-positive children in Africa with antiretroviral drug therapy, Father D’Agostino was trying to import donated generic drugs from Brazil.

In the past year, the $15 billion emergency AIDS benefit promised by President Bush has started trickling into Nyumbani. The results have been amazing.

Five years ago I visited the orphanage with my family, and the children I met suffered from warts that covered their eyes and faces.

The infirmary was filled with kids who were dying every month from pneumonia. Today, all the children are healthy, attend school and play. They may lack parents, but from all appearances, they live happy lives. But as they get older, they’ve started to wonder about their future.

What will life after Nyumbani be like? Will they be able to hold jobs without being ostracized? Will they be able to get married and have kids? Will the drugs they need always be available? These questions, even more than the disease, now plague them.

According to the United Nations, there are currently an estimated 2.3 million children living with HIV in sub-Sahara Africa.

Although pediatric medications are becoming available through Bush’s HIV/AIDS initiative and charitable organizations, half of all infected infants die before their second birthday without ever being treated. Even if we were able to get drugs for all the infected children in Africa, the greater challenge may be showing them how to live with HIV.

Midweek during my stay at Nyumbani, I started to spend more time with Grace. She loved reading books about ballet and was very curious about my life. “Do you have parents?” she asked. It’s not the kind of question you expect from a 12-year-old. When I told her I did, her expression changed, as if she suddenly saw that I was not like her.

Dennis, at 17, is the oldest orphan at Nyumbani. His twin brother died many years ago. Dennis is getting skills training for a job to support himself.

At his age, many Kenyan men are already married. Will he find a wife, similarly afflicted with the deadly disease? If they have a child, will it be orphaned, like him and 12 million other children in Africa today? These questions teach us that arresting the disease is solving only a fraction of the problem.

For Dennis, Grace and Joseph, and millions of children with HIV in Africa and in our own country, these are questions we need to consider. After meeting these remarkable children, I am more committed than ever to becoming someone who can provide answers.

Caroline Matthews is a junior at the Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School Story by Newsweek