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Issue Date:  September 24, 2004

New life for AIDS orphans in group homes

Church program in Kenya shows kids thrive with new drugs, substitute moms

Nairobi, Kenya

Experts on AIDS in Africa say that one huge question facing the continent is how to care for an estimated 10 million AIDS orphans, a number expected to soar to 30 million within the next decade. Not only are these children usually abandoned and destitute, but many are HIV-positive themselves.

If that’s the question, at least part of the answer may lie in a small compound on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, called the Nyumbani Children of God Relief Institute.

Nyumbani is the larger of two orphanages in Nairobi that care exclusively for HIV-positive children. It was founded by an American Jesuit in Kenya, Fr. Angelo D’Agostino, and is staffed by five Adoration Sisters from Kerala, India, as well as Loreto Sr. Mary Owens, from Ireland. (The other facility for HIV-positive orphans is also a Catholic center, run by the Congoletto community).

D’Agostino says Nyumbani was a response to a reality he saw in the streets of Nairobi in 1992.

“Parents succumbed to the pandemic, or mothers abandoned newborns in hospitals and on the roadways,” he said. “There was no hope for hundreds of motherless children affected with HIV themselves.”

In an effort to cope, D’Agostino launched Nyumbani, a Swahili word meaning “home.” NCR visited the orphanage Sept. 12.

What strikes the visitor immediately is that Nyumbani does not feel like a place full of sick, suffering people. The children laugh, play, sing and greet visitors like long-lost relatives. One small Kenyan girl named Awino, for example, clung to this writer throughout the morning.

“It’s a lot happier than you’d expect it to be,” said Ted Neill, 26, a Georgetown graduate who has served as director of volunteers at Nyumbani since 2002. “It’s not the pathos you’d anticipate.”

The Nyumbani compound is designed to resemble a small village. It has five duplexes divided into two cottages each, and each bears the name of a patron saint. Each cottage has a sitting room, kitchen, two bedrooms with four bunk beds, and its own “mom” -- a Kenyan woman who lives there and cares for the children.

The moms administer the daily doses of anti-retroviral medication that mean the difference between life and death. They work four days a week, and on the other three days another woman takes over who is called an “auntie,” in the African tradition of child care by the extended family.

Ann Wangeci, the beaming, bustling mom of 17 children from ages 2 to 12 in St. James cottage, was asked where she gets the strength. She simply replied: “We have to do it.”

Officially Nyumbani’s capacity is 75, but there are 94 children today, a response the overwhelming demand. The center of the compound is a colorful outdoor play area. Behind it lies a small building used for Mass and other activities.

Perhaps the most haunting corner of the grounds is the small cemetery, where simple white crosses mark the graves of 15 children. Prior to the advent of anti-retroviral treatment, Nyumbani used to lose two or three children every month. Most, however, are not buried at the orphanage, since when African children die their families usually arrive to claim them. Only the most abandoned are buried at Nyumbani.

Since the late 1990s, Nyumbani has been able to supply anti-retroviral treatment, thanks in part to a grant from the Brazilian government that funds one of the three elements in the drug cocktail. The last child to die at Nyumbani was in 2002. The orphanage also runs a network of community outreach programs, called Lea Toto, for which similar funds are not available. Seven to 10 children in that program die every month for lack of access to medication.

“That’s the injustice of our world,” Owens told NCR. “There’s medicine available and we can’t get it.”

Kenya has been among the countries hardest hit by AIDS, with 2.3 million HIV/AIDS cases between the ages of 15 and 49, according to United Nations statistics, out of a total population of 30 million. More than 1.5 million Kenyan children have been orphaned because of AIDS, and some 300,000 orphans are themselves HIV-positive.

In 1999, Nyumbani opened a diagnostic laboratory, with the capacity to test for HIV, TB, malaria, typhoid and other infectious diseases. It can also monitor the critical CD-4 counts of Nyumbani’s children that determine when anti-retroviral treatment should begin. The lab also provides its services to hospitals and clinics across Kenya.

Funding at Nyumbani comes exclusively from private donors, nongovernmental organizations and governments. The average monthly budget ranges from $15,000 to $20,000, D’Agostino said.

Over the years, Nyumbani has attracted some powerful friends. The first lady of Kenya, Lucy Kibaki, recently attended the 12th anniversary celebration. Last Christmas, Pope John Paul II decided to donate the proceeds from his annual Christmas stamp to Nyumbani (though the funds have yet to arrive).

This does not mean, however, that Nyumbani lacks critics. Twice in recent years it has been engulfed in controversy. In 2001, the center was accused of allowing two Oxford scientists to illegally remove from the country blood samples drawn from the children. This past May 23, a story broke in the Kenyan press about another English scientist, this one from Cambridge, consulting with Nyumbani about research allegedly not approved by the Kenyan authorities.

D’Agostino denies the charges, attributing them to a disgruntled Kenyan scientist who is unhappy that D’Agostino challenged his abuse of an Eisenhower Fellowship to gather material for a private laboratory.

Archbishop Raphael Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki of Nairobi told NCR Sept. 13 that if something happened in violation of government protocol it should be corrected, but the orphanage “absolutely” enjoys his support.

“I think they are doing very well,” Nzeki said.

D’Agostino has greater dreams still. He would like to construct a model matching AIDS orphans with another frequently marginalized group -- the elderly. The idea is to build a village for roughly 300 elderly Kenyans who need housing, plus 1,000 orphans who need someone to look after them.

“In Africa, there is no social security,” D’Agostino said. “When their children die of AIDS, elderly people, often destitute themselves, inherit responsibility for 15 to 20 grandchildren. It’s an overwhelming burden.”

D’Agostino told NCR that he’ll launch the project “whenever we can get 1,000 acres of land.”

Neill, however, said the most pressing need at Nyumbani is to deal with the new hurdles created by their own success. Instead of keeping the children comfortable until they die, Nyumbani is now faced with helping them to build a future.

“Four years ago, the future was funeral arrangements,” he said. “Now we’re talking about schools and life skills.”

It is, all at Nyumbani would agree, a blessed challenge to have.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 2004

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