- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

U.S. volunteers witness privation, work to alleviate it

KAMPALA, Uganda — Images of African poverty — unkempt scavengers searching dumps, cardboard-and-tin shanties held together by wire, and crying children with distended bellies and outstretched hands — are not uncommon in American media.

But seeing strife-torn Africa up close, with eye contact, the continent’s despair quickly becomes personal.

The desire to find a way to enhance life for millions who bear unspeakable suffering on this continent can become an obsession to visitors to Uganda who venture onto its poorest streets, yet find its richest souls.



Exploring those streets, and toiling in medical clinics, orphanages and charity centers, where the AIDS pandemic is ever-present is how a team from the group Students of the World (SOW) spent a month in Africa.

Our mission was clear when we came to Uganda in early August: We would listen; we would do good work, grow in maturity and worldly responsibility, document on film and video what we saw and experienced, write about it all, then tote our impressions home.

We also would encourage American university students from coast to coast to drop some traditional pastimes and awaken to the problems of the world. We would be persistent and compelling in our stories, revealing what we learned in Uganda and hope our commitment is contagious.

On a hot, dry morning, our contributions seemed minuscule as we loaded food sacks on battered trucks at a distribution center for AIDS-infected Ugandans, led youngsters in sing-song tunes we grew up with but they’d never heard, and listened to horror stories of AIDS infection.

As we finished our first song, a child standing in the corner of a churchyard doubling as a distribution center asked, “Will you please sing another?” In a nearby dank corner, where they were choking from the heat and dusty residue of open containers of maize flour and corn sorghum, Ugandans employed by a U.S. aid program hugged and shook hands with the stoutest of us who were wrestling with food sacks and barrels of vegetable oil.

A tiny child carried a can of vitamin A-fortified vegetable oil alongside his mother, who dragged a sack of CSB, or corn-soy blend, that is believed to fight HIV/AIDS infection. A sack supplies two weeks of sustenance to a typical family that otherwise would face starvation.

Many of the children, ages 3 to 5, approached us with hands outstretched to shake.

“How are you?” some of them asked in angelic voices and then went mute, as their social skills are limited. Those little handshakes, some of them quite firm, seemed to thank us for our hoisting, hefting, singing and listening.

To control distribution of CSB, the recipients, mostly illiterate, were asked to leave a thumbprint. Photo IDs, too, were examined by clerks. There were no computers.

“Because I have several children, the food is never enough, but it fights infection and keeps us alive,” a mother said. “We are grateful to America for it.”

Then the woman and her teenage daughters returned to the dusty dirt street we’d rattled over to reach Our Lady of Fatima School, one of nine distribution centers in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.

The teens that day wore colorful dresses not because the distribution center is a social venue but, a mother said, because it is the only time girls can leave the chores of survival in Kampala’s ghetto.

Also among the hundreds in tattered clothing were older women in long dresses, also brightly colored, walking with pride and purpose though their dresses were soiled with CSB and vegetable oil.

Brenda Ruharo, a recent Makerere University graduate who volunteers in the advocacy and mobilization unit of the AIDS Service Organization, Uganda’s largest nongovernment agency fighting AIDS, guided us through the maze of food distribution.

Miss Ruharo — in a business suit, with finely braided hair and manicured nails — moved as naturally as the hard-bodied men in coveralls and rubber boots who measured and doled out maize and other crops to hundreds, mostly women, who quietly waited their turns. Husbands of many of the women had died from AIDS or in civil war.

Miss Ruharo took no notice when her hair and suit got dirty with maize flour and CSB.

“We are proud when American students hold our children,” a mother whispered to Miss Ruharo when SOW co-director Ashley Thiel took her 5-year-old son, Hamuza, in her lap, gave him a pen and marveled at his scribbling.

One American student followed Hamuza when he ambled off with his mother and slipped a bill in his pocket. The mother beamed — not because of the gift, but because of the attention her son was getting from the American.

Much of Africa has survived tribal wars for years, and modernity and progress have been slow. Some countries dealt effectively with corrupt and greedy leaders of the 20th century.

In Uganda, for all the poverty and challenge, change seems in the air. Construction is up and education is a growing priority.

President Yoweri Museveni recently announced that school authorities who levy extra charges against students would be jailed. He also rescinded an order that children must pay for school lunches and proposed that telephone and electricity charges in urban schools be scrapped.

But on a dusty roadway through neighborhoods where most of Kampala’s foundations and charities sit next to the poor to whom they minister, there were sad signs of how slowly change was coming.

Woodwork stacked in front of shabby commercial stalls looked at first like benches or bed frames for sale. Then, as we got closer, rough writing on a sign became clear: “Special. Baby coffins.”

The tiny coffins sat atop larger ones for adults.

During our monthlong stay we saw several signs of economic development and gradual improvements in public health in Uganda. But for now, there is a strong possibility that our little buddy, Hamuza, might end up in one of those tiny coffins.

c Courtney Spence, before committing full time to Students of the World (SOW), which she founded, worked for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat. Co-director Ashley Thiel grew up in Washington and works for a Manhattan law firm. Jeremy Goldberg is SOW co-director at the University of Texas, has worked for the Democratic National Committee and interned at CNN in Washington.

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