Africa Lifelines: Orphaned by AIDS…Embraced by Strangers

Idweli, Tanzania – From the back of a lantern-lit schoolroom at a rural orphanage, Fodi Julius fixed his shining eyes on the blackboard. He was fighting exhaustion and trying to please his parents.

They died three years ago, leaving Fodi, 11, and his brother,
Nhambo, 8, among Africa’s 12.3 million children who’ve lost parents
to AIDS.

Their mom and dad’s final advice: Do well in school, because
survival depends on it.

Before moving to the orphanage, Fodi and Nhambo rose each morning
from their mats by a fire pit in their crumbling mud-brick hut.
They straightened their smudged school uniforms. Their small
fingers wove grass in place of lost buttons to fasten tattered

The boys set out barefoot and without breakfast down the dirt path
to school. At lunch break, while others ate, they waited. Finally,
when the teacher dismissed them for the day, Fodi and Nhambo
wandered through farm fields, foraging for food.

“We’d get leaves,” Fodi said. He weighs 48 pounds, half the
weight of others his age.

He mixed those green leaves with water and urged Nhambo to eat, no
matter how bad the leaves tasted or how sad he felt.

“I’d just tell him: ‘She died. There’s nothing we can do about
it.’ I’d tell him: ‘Even if you cry, she’s not coming back. So we
should stop crying and do what we have to do.”‘

But now, after three years on their own, Fodi and Nhambo have beds,
meals and basic instruction at an experimental children’s center
where they live with 56 other orphans on the outskirts of this
dusty, Swahili-speaking village.

Americans half a world away in Colorado and Oregon set up the
center – stepping in where governments and big charities had done

As the world grows more intertwined, African villagers mired in
disease, poverty and conflict – and those who want to help them –
are discovering new ways to connect, bypassing Africa’s
corruption-crippled governments and Western bureaucrats.

Television, radio and reports from migrant sons and daughters have
whetted village appetites for better living conditions. The recent
arrival of cellphones and e-mail in rural hubs encourages direct
links with Americans.

Help began with an e-mail

Here at Idweli, whose 1,300 people include more than 200 orphans,
the children’s center where Fodi now finds full plates of rice and
potatoes began with a simple e-mail.

Godfrey Mahenge, a student from Idweli studying medicine in
Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam, five years ago vowed to do
something to help orphans back home. He’d told elders of his plans.
They’d dismissed him as a dreamer.

Mahenge drowned five years ago while swimming in the ocean. But his
girlfriend, Neema Mgana, kept sending e-mail queries to groups
outside Africa. One e-mail reached Barry Childs, 61, a corporate
executive turned philanthropist in Oregon who’d formed the group
Africa Bridge to try to help villagers.

Instead of dismissing the message as just another African e-mail
scam, Childs asked for details. He paid for Mgana to visit him.

Childs enlisted Vic Dukay, 49, a former aviation-business owner in
Denver with experience running AIDS projects, to work with him at
Idweli. Their first visits in 2002 focused on listening to children
and village elders.

“You want to be useful,” said Dukay, a heavyset, jovial man prone
to overworking himself. Orphaned at age 15, he was later moved to
tears as he sat with kids unsure where they’d find their next meal
and who habitually raised their hands before speaking.

“It took me back instantly to when I was 15,” he said. “That
look in the eye, body language, speech, that low, soft voice,
wanting to be in the back of the room away from everybody, not
wanting to be seen. You look in their eyes. Have you ever seen
anybody really sad? I can see sadness in somebody’s eyes. …
Probably from looking at myself.”

Dukay and Childs guided construction of the center, five ochre-hued
buildings with cement-and-stone foundations. Village men did the
work. There’s no electricity or running water.

This year, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded Dukay a grant to
assess whether the children’s center is meeting village needs. He
led an evaluation team, including psychologists and social workers,
on his 10th visit to Idweli this fall – feeling “more alive than
I’ve ever felt,” he said.

Staving off extremists

Sustaining this children’s center, and possibly replicating it
elsewhere, is more than a humanitarian effort, Dukay said. Security
analysts worry that Africa’s millions of desperate AIDS orphans
will join jobless urban masses adrift and vulnerable to extremists
who could lure them into violence.

“Where best to recruit?” Dukay said. “Out here in the
hinterlands where there is no security.”

He watched Fodi playing soccer in donated white sneakers, fighting
hard for the ball against bigger players, despite his physical
weakness after three years of eating very little. Nhambo, solitary
and silent, played a bit, too.

Any chore, Fodi volunteered. He hauled a 16-foot-long bamboo pole
for a mile to help cooks who were building a shelf.

Life’s better now than before, Fodi said, recalling how taunts from
children with parents tormented him.

“I’d leave, go sit someplace alone. Very bad to hear. I thought:
‘This will happen many times in my life. People will always be
telling me I am an orphan.”‘

Far more typical across Africa today are orphaned children who
raise other children with no help. Village elders are overwhelmed.
Nearby at the village of Ndulamo, three teenage girls – Shida
Mahenge, 16, and her sisters, Ona, 14, and Rehema, 12 – huddled
together at sunset. When they beg for food from neighbors, “people
cannot give,” Shida said.

For five years after AIDS killed their father and then their
mother, Shida served as surrogate parent and caretaker, insisting
that Ona and Rehema stay in school.

“I’m always telling them they need to behave and to listen to
their teacher and when they don’t understand, to ask questions,”
she said.

She deals with food. Working to earn money means enduring
harassment from boys and men unaccustomed to working with a girl.
First, Shida broke rock into gravel that villagers sell to road
crews for maintenance.

“Very hard work. You have to carry the rocks. It takes a long time
with the hammer to break the rocks into small stones. Now, I work
carrying timber. I think it might be better.”

But this night they had no food or wood to burn and stay warm. The
girls huddled silently in the cold, blue darkness. They were
hungry, barely able to think about their dreams of attending a
vocational school.

“We like to pray,” Shida said. “We have a very hard life now. We
pray to God to help us, so that we will not get sick. … We need
help to survive.”

HIV adds to struggles

Helping children such as this can be difficult because many are
infected with HIV, the virus causing AIDS. Doctors are scarce,
about one per 50,000 people in rural Tanzania, let alone anti-retroviral drugs for villagers.

At a German-run clinic nearby in Bolongwa, Dr. Rainer Brandl was
amazed to see a tiny, bloated girl, her feet swollen, staggering in
from a farm.

When he tested Veneranda Ganga, 13, he found she was HIV-positive with virtually no immunities. Doubting she’d survive,
Brandl put her on anti-retrovirals.

Veneranda gained strength. She began helping around the hospital,
cradling an abandoned 1-year-old girl. She told nurses she’d been
sick for years, after her father died of AIDS. Later, her mother
died, too, when Veneranda was 5. Before dying, she said, her mother
told her: “You must listen to other people. One day I will die,
and you must get along.”

Each day Veneranda retrieved water, washed dishes and took care of
her brother and an aunt’s two young children. This year, she grew
too weak to work. “I told my uncle, I better go to the

Frustrated and deluged with sick children, Brandl works on a
shoestring, unable to pay and keep staff. United Nations and U.S.
aid often funds workshops for doctors and social workers in cities,
drawing them away from urgent work in villages, he said.

“Nobody wants to work out here,” he said.

Orphans start to cope

At the Idweli children’s center, regular meals, chores and classes
let orphans begin coming to terms with their plight.

Vaileti Bonifasi, 14, who was 2 when her parents died, said she’d
been sneaking away to visit their graves, praying a bit, talking
and crying.

“I was walking back home from school thinking: ‘How can I not even
know what my mother looked like?”‘ Vaileti said. “I thought about
it all the way home. And I was lying on my bed. When I got up, the
ghost of my mother came to me. She was speaking to me. But I
couldn’t understand her.”

Godfrey Mahenge’s younger brother Elia, 21, told Vaileti she should
ask her brother Fred at the family house by the graves if he had a
photo of their mother. When they arrived, they found Fred standing
with his wife, Gloria, and their baby.

“There’s no picture” of their mother, Fred said. Instead, Fred
produced a wrinkled, laminated driver’s license showing their
father, who died in 1994. Vaileti clutched it but still wanted a
photo of her mother.

“I need to compare it with the face of the ghost,” she said.

Involving the villagers

The cost of the project at Idweli, including construction and
support for daily operations, has been about $300,000. Now Dukay’s
evaluation is focused on perceptions of villagers and the

“Are there any concerns?” Dukay asked recently in the meeting
hall, addressing village elders. “If there are any problems in
what we are doing, I would like to know directly.”

Some villagers benefit – such as Florence Doset, 39, a mother of
two who teaches at the center. She earns $50 a month.

“Because of these children, we have money,” she said. “So we’re

Others are bewildered. Orphans at the center suddenly enjoy better
living conditions and food than other children living with their
parents. Project supporters have begun to give small
“microcredit” loans to villagers.

Fodi is now studying as his parents advised, but the habit of
worrying about Nhambo is ingrained. He recently warned Elia that
Nhambo’s mind wanders in school.

But Fodi also was beginning to think about himself. In the
classroom where he sat recently in the early evening, he summoned
the last energy he had to hold his head up. Three lanterns cast a
golden light just bright enough to illuminate the blackboard. Elia
was teaching English, writing sentences – “You sing a song” – for
students to copy.

This was extra instruction to give the orphans a better chance at
school. Twenty boys, mostly older, were taking advantage.

And Fodi was especially resolute.

He wanted to be ready for competitive tests that determine who
qualifies for college.

“I want to be a teacher,” Fodi said. “Then I can help other



Series reporter: Bruce Finley covers international affairs and
security for The Denver Post, which he joined in 1988. He has
reported from more than 30 nations, including his third tour in
Iraq with a U.S. combat unit earlier this year. This is Finley’s
fifth Africa assignment.

He grew up in Colorado, graduated from Stanford University in 1984
and earned master’s degrees in international relations as a
Fulbright scholar in Britain and in journalism at NorthwesternUniversity.

Finley can be reached at

Series photographer: Helen H. Richardson previously traveled to
Thailand and Indonesia to cover the South Asian tsunami and to Rome
for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, among other overseas
assignments for The Post, which she joined in 1993. Her freelance
work has appeared in The New York Times and Christian Science

Richardson grew up in Aspen and graduated from Parsons School of
Design in New York.

Richardson can be reached at

Series editor: Mark Harden

Photo editor: Larry C. Price

Copy editor: Eddie Chuculate

Maps and graphics: Severiano Galván

Multimedia producers: Doug Conarroe, Demetria Gallegos



Cellphones, e-mail and migrants are connecting rural Africa with
urban America, creating new possibilities for action to address
Africa’s pressing problems. Private groups in Colorado and
elsewhere are reaching the villages where two-thirds of Africans
live. “Africa Lifelines,” a three-day Denver Post series,
explores these efforts.

Today: A Coloradan works in a Tanzanian village where the spread of
AIDS is leaving growing numbers of children parentless.

Also, a Denver FBI agent cultivates African police as partners
against terrorism.

Monday: Efforts by Colorado-based Water for People to drill wells in Malawi help
thousands who search daily for safe water.

Tuesday: Colorado engineers assist Rwandan schoolgirls quavering
from the horrors of war.

Some quoted material in these reports was translated from Swahili,
Tambuka, Kinyarwanda and local dialects.