Anna Maria, a seventeen-year-old Ugandan, symbolizes both the tragedy of AIDS and the hope for a solution.
Eight years ago, Anna Maria's father returned home from military training with AIDS. He died a year later. Now Anna Maria is watching her mother die from the same disease. Soon, Anna Maria will be responsible for supporting five younger siblings, including one infant.
During a six-month fellowship in Uganda, I learned that Anna Maria's situation is not unique. With 8.5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa infected with HIV, almost no one there is unaffected by AIDS. I was prepared to see the victims' suffering. But I hadn't considered how devastating AIDS is for the survivors.
This small East African country has no formal structure to address such a crisis, so thousands of orphans are in need of support. Some are cared for by relatives, but in Uganda, where the average yearly income is less than $1,000, family resources are limited. I saw orphan girls working as house servants and orphan boys working the fields while the family's biological children went to school.
Some orphans opt to support themselves and their siblings, eking out a living on their own. Anna Maria has chosen this path. But when her mother became too ill to run the canteen where she sold food for a living, Anna Maria got scared. "Sometimes a whole day would go by when we wouldn't have anything to eat," she told me. "Mommy was counting on me, and I didn't know what to do."
Many young people like Anna Maria wind up on the street begging for money and digging through garbage bins for food. Some teenage girls work as prostitutes, perpetuating the tragic AIDS cycle by putting themselves at risk of contracting HIV.
Not every Ugandan orphan's story has to end this way. With help from World Learning Inc., Ugandans of all ages are learning how to prevent the spread of AIDS and how to create a life for themselves in the wake of an AIDS death. With funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development, World Learning helps Ugandan organizations provide AIDS education, HIV-testing services, and income-generating activities to families affected by AIDS. One social-services group focuses on providing teenagers such as Anna Maria with vocational training and skills in business management.
A year after taking a course in tailoring, Anna Maria makes and sells clothes to support her family. "I don't know what I'd do if I hadn't had this training course. I'd be at home saying, `Let me find a man to pay for us.' "
Anna Maria may end up breaking the AIDS cycle. She is her country's future.
Programs such as World Learning's help launch a generation of healthy, productive contributors to Ugandan society. But this program and others like it are in danger of losing funding because of federal budget cuts.
As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and borders become less significant, sharing our resources to educate non-Americans on AIDS is a wise investment in our collective future.
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