- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

KAMPALA, Uganda - Julius Ckuma, 12, sleeps at night in a welder’s stall made of rusty metal sheeting and wood scraps near a Kampala dump since his mother died of AIDS in 2002. His father died earlier of the same disease.

He said he collects scrap metal for money and occasionally searches through the garbage for food, while trying to avoid harassment from the police and other street children.

“Maybe one day I will be blessed, and God will give me a good home to stay in,” Julius said.

A report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 11 million children in sub-Saharan Africa 14 or younger have lost one or both parents to AIDS. They comprise more than two-thirds of the world’s 13.2 million AIDS orphans.

It is difficult to determine the specific number of people affected by AIDS in Uganda because the disease still carries a stigma and is underreported throughout the country, the Ugandan AIDS Commission (UAC) said.

Uganda is the only African country to reverse its HIV-infection rate — from nearly 19 percent of the population in 1995 to about 6.2 percent last year, the Health Ministry said.

Still, more than 1 million Ugandans have died from AIDS since the disease was identified in the region in 1982, and an estimated 1.5 million are infected with HIV, the ministry said.

Despite Uganda’s success in reducing its HIV-infection rate, the UAC estimates that 2.35 million orphans 17 and younger lost at least one parent to the disease. Children comprise 62 percent of Uganda’s poor, according to a government demographic health survey, and many of the most unfortunate children live on the streets.

Juliet Tumuheirwe, program director for the Friends of Children Association (FOCA), a grass-roots group that provides food, clothing, counseling, vocational training and English classes to 200 street children per year in Kampala, said AIDS has exacerbated Uganda’s orphan crisis and fractured its social support systems.

“The family network has broken down because of the AIDS epidemic,” Mrs. Tumuheirwe said. “Children were once taken in by other family members when the parents died, but now these family members are dying too — so who is left to take care of the children?”

Julius said he doesn’t know where his remaining relatives live. He receives assistance at FOCA, where he is training to work as a mechanic, although he has other aspirations.

“I want to find a sponsor who will help me pay school fees so I can continue my education,” said Julius, who earns an average 1,000 Uganda shillings per day, worth about 50 cents in U.S. money, collecting scrap metal around Kampala.

“I’m too young to be working for a living,” the 12-year-old said.

Women, mostly widows, have stepped forward to shoulder the burden of caring for orphans and head 70 percent of orphan households in the country, the UAC said.

Aisha Natale, 40, whose husband died of AIDS in 1999, leaving her infected with HIV and three young children to support, has taken four orphaned neighborhood children into her crowded home.

Mrs. Natale said she lives on 100,000 shillings a month, about $50. Part of that is donated by Orphans and Widows of AIDS in Uganda (OWAU), and she earns the rest by selling clothes she makes with one of the manual sewing machines that OWAU has provided for widows in the area.

“I would take in more children if I could,” said Mrs. Natale, who is not certain what will happen to the seven children in her household if she dies before they are grown. “I care for them and love them for now, because they have no one else.”

Uganda’s AIDS epidemic has thrust many of the country’s children into the position of running the households their parents left behind. Cotilda Nakusi, 17, whose parents died of AIDS last year, inherited the burden of caring for five siblings ages 3 to 15.

Miss Nakusi said she helps support her brothers and sisters on the equivalent of $1.50 per day she earns washing clothes by hand. She said kind neighbors pay her family’s school fees and the rent for the cramped room that the six youngsters share.

“I’m not very confident in this situation,” Miss Nakusi said. “The neighbors are helping now, but they may not always be there.”

She hopes to raise enough money to open a small stall to sell food and drinks to establish a regular income and a sense of security.

The Kamwokya Christian Caring Community is another example of how Ugandans improvise to deal with the AIDS-orphans crisis.

Francis Mabazira, its executive director, said the group has placed 40 young AIDS orphans in homes throughout the Kamwokya neighborhood in the capital.

“This is a shared responsibility,” he said. “Some members of the community have taken that responsibility.”

Doreen Arinaitwe, 24, is one of the beneficiaries of the group’s compassion. At 13, she lost her father, mother and 8-year-old brother to AIDS and was abandoned by the rest of her family.

Miss Arinaitwe said she lived with one foster mother, but the entire neighborhood helped raise her until she graduated from Makerere University in Kampala with a degree in education.

“I wouldn’t have achieved what I have if it was not for the community,” said Miss Arinaitwe, who teaches history at a primary school in the southwestern Uganda town Mbarara.

But many AIDS orphans in this country were born with the disease that killed their parents and face a short future.

The UAC says the mother-to-child infection rate in Uganda is as high as 45 percent, and 10 percent of the 1.5 million Ugandans infected with HIV are children.

The antiretroviral medication that staves off the onset of AIDS is available to only 10,000 HIV-infected people in the country, and the $100-per-month cost of these drugs is beyond the means of most. The World Bank estimates that the average annual income in Uganda is roughly $300.

Nantela Prossy, 17, who lost both her parents to AIDS and was born with HIV, said antiretroviral drugs are not an option for her.

“In Uganda, if you don’t have money, you can’t get treatment,” said Miss Prossy, who lives with a foster mother and her eight brothers — none of whom has tested positive for HIV.

“I would like to go to America,” she said. “Many of my friends have gone there to have treatment for HIV.”

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