COMMENTARY: AIDS and the children of Uganda

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Robert A. Seiple is president of World Vision, the evangelical relief and development organization.)

UNDATED _ Every overseas trip for World Vision has its poignant moments, but my visit to Uganda earlier this year had more that its share.

Years of war, followed by the scourge of AIDS, has severely strained the country's social fabric. Uganda faced up to its problems, attacked them publicly, and put development and education programs together to help restore a badly damaged nation. The country _ once known for the brutality of dictator Idi Amin _ now is one of the most stable in Africa.

But despite remarkable economic growth and political stability, Uganda continues to be hampered by the lingering effects of the AIDS epidemic. Even if there were no new cases, generations of Ugandans will remain in the disease's shadow.

On this visit to Uganda, I returned to the Rakai District in the southwestern section of the nation, where the ravages of AIDS have been the most pronounced. I visited the children of parents I once knew _ people who had died since my previous visit.

I revisited a grandmother who was taking care of 16 children. She is now in her 80s, but there are no younger adults left alive who can share her burden. Who will take it over when she is gone?

For me, though, the most poignant moment was meeting a couple of kids named Charles and Gertrude who stood in front of a ramshackle house, poor even by Ugandan standards. Grass grew through the partially thatched roof. Gaping holes admitted the afternoon rains, creating a chill for its two young occupants.

Already, pneumonic coughs were evident in both kids. If that were not enough, a hailstorm had passed through a few days earlier, leaving behind a maze of uprooted and torn banana plants that increased the pathos of the scene.

Then there were the two graves: one for a mother who had died some time ago, and the fresh grave of the father who had passed away in the past three months. Both succumbed to AIDS.

Charles was 10. His ever-present sister, Gertrude, was only 7. The home and banana grove, such as they are, formed their inheritance. Poverty, despair, fear, and vulnerability have also been passed along to these children who have lost all normalcy in their childhood.

It is hard to imagine a 10-year-old boy taking over as head of the household. Quite candidly, for me that thought defies any ability to imagine. There was a home to maintain, an old home, where things went wrong, where the broken needed fixing.

Firewood had to be gathered, a daily chore. Food needed to be found, prepared, cooked _ hopefully on a predictable basis. Bodies and clothes had to be cleaned. The banana grove needed to be maintained. All of this happened around a school day for each child.

Of course, meeting life's basic needs precluded many things. There was no time for play. That kind of child's activity was already outgrown. Besides, there were no toys.

We brought with us blankets, salt, soap _ not toys. Charles and Gertrude were excited. Each received a new blanket. Warmth at night!

The joyous smiles were genuine. I remarked to our staff later about this and was told:"In America, a blanket is a right. Here, it is a privilege." Privileges were few. Responsibilities were many. Where do you go for help? How can parental love ever be replaced, especially for children this young? What if the plantation couldn't be tended? Where does one go for a predictable source of food? Who will take care of a sick child?

Gertrude went inside to put on her sweatshirt. It was growing cooler, and every instinct told her that her body was already vulnerable. We continued talking with them but are interrupted by Gertrude's attempt to get Charles' attention. She whispered something in a low voice as she pointed to his chest.

He pretended not to hear, but she was persistent. Finally, we asked our interpreter what was happening."She's making her brother put his sweatshirt on, too." She was taking care of her brother. Her brother is all she has left. They are in this together. Their affection for each other is real, their concerns genuine.

Charles ran into the house and came out with a sweatshirt. Gertrude was satisfied, and our conversation continued.

Later, we took them to the clinic to get medicine for their coughs. Pills were meted out and put in small plastic bags. Charles took over. Gertrude's pills were stuffed into his left pocket; his went into the right.

We give them each a couple of lollipops, a natural gift for children at a clinic, even though they seem somehow out of place for the"head of the household."Each pocket received an equal number.

A small girl, no more than 3, watched the lollypop exchange and cried to register her own request. Charles didn't hesitate. He walked over to the child, reached into"his"pocket, and shared his gift.

It's only right. After all, he was now head of a family.

We were all touched. We were witnessing family, community, civil society _ the best of human relationships _ and the testimony came through the lives of children.

Jesus said,"Unless you become like a child, you shall not inherit the Kingdom of God."That verse is more meaningful to me now. Charles and Gertrude _ who modeled the love of parents to one another _ helped me to understand it better.

They also provided me with two more reasons to love, protect, reduce the vulnerability and remove the stumbling blocks from the lives of children around the world.

Children like Gertrude and Charles soften our hearts. They teach us much. They speak to our best instincts, perhaps long dormant within us.