AidChild is an AIDS organization that serves orphans living with HIV/AIDS who do not have the support of extended families in Uganda, East Africa; committed to empowerment, quality medical care and education within a proven framework of self-sustainability.
Below is a narrative of AidChild’s story and heart (an excerpt from a congressional testimony by Founder Nathaniel Dunigan—given before the United States Congress).
I invite you to imagine that you are standing with me in a banana field in Africa. It is October of 1998, my first visit to the continent, and I have come with hope; the precious product of HIV prevention education. I have been deposited here with a talented interpreter, and left to find my way through the drapes of leafy trees and across the carpets of fallen foliage. Soon enough, I find my destination: a tiny mud hut. The space is crowded beyond capacity. I suddenly realize that everyone here is familiar with death. They know that their families are dying.
And in so many cases, they sense that they themselves are dying.
I step to the front and begin my hopeful presentation. Once finished, I answer questions. Finally, the space clears. Through the rear opening of the hut steps a woman who looks to be quite aged. With her, a very young boy. He is covered with sores. Wounds. His body is weak. I reach down and pick him up. I feel that he is burning with fever.
And I look into his eyes. There, I see something I have seen many times since: the early maturity of a suffering soul. This is a dear person. Like your children. Your grandchildren.
The elder speaks. She says, “This is my grandson. His name is Simon. His father, my son, died when Simon was two months old. With AIDS. His mother died three months ago. With AIDS. It seems apparent to me that he also has AIDS.”
She pauses. She swallows. Then, “Today, you talked to us about AIDS, and you talked about hope. So I was just wondering, what can you do for my grandson?”
That day, in the middle of that banana field, my life changed as my thinking underwent a revolution. You see, I knew that there are more orphans in Uganda than in any other country of the world today: 2.1 to 2.3 million according to most observers.
But the revolution in my thinking took place only once I was able to individualize the daunting and disturbing statistics. As I held Simon in my arms, and as I looked into his eyes, I came face to face with the reality that our fight with HIV/AIDS is not about numbers and dollars, but about real people—with names and faces.
Further investigation, and now nineteen months of on-the-job experience in Uganda, have shown me that when more than ten percent of a population is orphaned, there is a need which transcends culture, society, government, church, and home. When the world loses massive numbers of people, there are survivors left to neglect and abandonment.
Yes, in Uganda, the HIV infection rate has drastically reduced. You realize, of course, that this means that many of those who were infected have died. And that not as many new infections have occurred.
I have just told you that more than two million children are orphaned in Uganda. Just one country. A country we rightly tout as currently edging towards victory in our desperate war. Many of these children are already HIV positive. Many of them, thankfully, are not. I have a desperate worry; a plaguing concern about what happens as this group of children ages. Some of these little hearts and personalities are often left alone. Regularly ignored. Rarely cared for. What happens as their yearnings for intimacy and acceptance develop into a sexual activity and adulthood not reared with the benefits of kisses-on-the-forehead nor an elder’s wisdom?
My greater worry, though, is for the children who are already infected with HIV, an HIV that has rapidly destroyed their immune systems, and has given them AIDS. They are suffering—and are most often suffering unnecessarily. There is much that can be done for them. Like at AidChild, the hospice and palliative care center I founded and currently direct in Masaka. When nutrition, proper hygiene and loving care replace abuse, neglect and desperately overtaxed extended families, this unnecessary suffering is transformed into a preciously simple condition of comfort, strength and hope. Surely this is a basic human right worthy of provision for children who have no one.
I walk around my home in Uganda everyday saying three words: “It’s so easy. The every-day-activities required to help these children are more ordinary than heroic.
Please allow me to close with the story of one of my children, Ivan. He was nine years old when he came to live with me. Little is known about his past. Before Ivan was referred to AidChild, he was surviving in the ramshackled police barracks of my town. More than one policeman has told me that Ivan would awake early every morning to pray. In a loud voice he would say, “Oh God, please send someone to help me. I am hurting. I’m sad, and I’m alone.”
Once with us, Ivan became perfect joy. He became stronger. His blind eyes were treated. His malaria, TB, shingles, aches and pains were carefully tended. He was quicker to rejoice than to weep.
Months had gone by when he started to sleep a lot. In his own bed. A clean, comfortable space, free of mosquitoes and daunting heat. One day, he awoke from his slumber and looked at my staff members. He said, “I have seen that you love me so much.” And then, he did something I find quite extraordinary and special. He said, “Thank you.” He returned his head to his pillow, and listened to the soft music we play as a part of our hospice care. Again he spoke, “That music is so nice,” he said. And then went back to sleep.
My little Ivan died early the next morning.
But most of my children are still living with me—strong, happy and hopeful. With AIDS. Even months later.
And some have died. Others will also die.
But perhaps Ivan’s is the greatest hope. May we all one day be able to say, “I have seen that I am loved. I am grateful. I’m comfortable. And I’m going to go to sleep now.”
Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “So long as we are loved by others, we are indispensable, and no (one) is useless (when they) have a friend.”
From the frontlines, I report to you that this must become the reality for millions of children around the world. And it can be done. I know firsthand. Extended family networks are exhausted, even destroyed. Foster homes are often perfect and wonderful—but will always be too few. If we are to offer this basic right to as many children as we possibly can, we simply cannot afford to rule out any one type of care for this terrific number of dear hearts, sweet faces, and precious individuals.
Working together, we must make a difference.
We can make a difference.
And, moreover, I absolutely maintain: it really is so easy.
Testimony by Nathaniel Dunigan
United States House of Representatives Committee on International Relations
Hearing—April 17, 2002
“Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Africa:
Identifying the Best Practice for Prevention, Treatment and Care”