Bringing hope to Uganda's orphans
Children at Nyaka AIDS Orphans School in Nyaka, Uganda, in Africa, pray as they begin their school day. Father Tim Farrell's parish joined forces with Jackson Kaguri to found the school. All children, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim, are welcomed here if they are orphaned by the AIDS pandemic.
On September 18, I received the following note from my longtime friend Father Tim Farrell, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Farmington, New Mexico:
“I head for Uganda and Rwanda, Africa, next Sunday. Pray for all of us. It is me along with five parishioners, five women. A thorn among the roses! We have a 22-hour flight (including an overnight stop in Dubai), and after a night in Kampala, we will drive nine hours by safari van to Nyaka, Uganda, where the AIDS Orphans' School is. It is a tiny village near the Inpenetrable Forest with gorillas and tree-climbing lions. There is no electricity there and luckily, due to the great generosity of my parishioners, the town now has running water. So, it will be unique. I will let you know how all of it goes in my update in late October when I return.”
To commemorate the Thanksgiving holiday, here is Father Tim’s report, dateline Uganda:
NYAKA, Uganda -- Many children who attend Nyaka AIDS Orphans' School rise and leave before dawn and get home from school after the sun has set. They live miles away and make the great effort to attend the school because it gives them hope for life itself, Stephen Kagaba, headmaster, explained.
These children, he says, are orphans due to the scourge of AIDS, which has killed thousands and thousands of Ugandans. In a real sense, Nyaka School is the 250 children’s only light.
My parish of Sacred Heart has supported Nyaka School for almost a decade, and I was privileged recently to see what the school is doing to change the lives of these children. Though we raise several thousand dollars a year in a special collection for the school, I did not understand how this could help so many children. Mr. Kagaba, though, said that "with the money you send, we are able to educate and feed all these children." My question, as pastor, was, what would happen to these children if our parish did not support the school?
Mr. Kagaba shook his head sadly: "You have seen the children along the sides of the roads? That would be our children who are going to Nyaka School. They would be worse than slaves. Many of them would die at an early age. These children who are orphans become street children. They work for the rich people herding their goats and cows, and their lives are full of stress and hopelessness. They are mistreated. They die very young, overwhelmed by life. But because you support Nyaka School, all these children get breakfast and lunch each day and they get a good education. In our district with 250 schools, Nyaka is a miracle. We are in the top three schools. The children who come here come free of charge, due to the kindness of Sacred Heart and other people who care. They have real futures. The other schools in the district do not supply meals. The children come to school hungry and go home hungry. Not the children of Nyaka School."
I was privileged to attend classes with the children and was so encouraged by the strong education they are receiving. These children in Grades P1 through P7 are learning so much. These children who would be forgotten on the sides of the roads of Uganda without the school have futures not only in Secondary School but in colleges.
While I was visiting along with five parishioners (Rosie Gomez, Margaret Zamora, Becky Schritter, Jayme Childers and Katie Pettigrew) , we all were able to interact with the children and see the educational and emotional foundations being laid in these children who have known so much tragedy in their young lives. Early each morning the children gather in the school courtyard for prayer, singing and reports from the school and from around the country. They are fed porridge for breakfast and then the day begins, a day filled with classes, physical education, a full lunch, camraderie with each other and lots of playtime.
As one teacher said, "It is hard to make them go home when school lets out at 5 p.m. This is their family here, and when they go home many do not get to eat. They are too poor. Many go home to dark houses with grannies who are sick and old. They go home far away from the school."
And they go home to places often with no lights, not even candlelight.
Nyaka School has become the pride of the community as well. The school, through Sacred Heart Parish contributions, has been able to build a water system which is now used for the entire village area. Because of the success of Nyaka, the parish and others have helped to open another school at Katumba, about an hour or so away by car. As well, the Nyaka Foundation is building little homes for the "grannies" who are taking care of the orphan children or who live out so far and in such poverty that they are literally dying from neglect.
Jackson Kaguri, whose vision brought about the two schools and the "granny program" says that the grannies are presently living in small huts with leaking roofs and housing not only themselves but the goat and the chickens. “These women are dying from neglect, and so the Foundation is presently planning to build new homes for these elders of the surrounding areas," he explained.
He said that amazingly the homes can be built for around $700 each. "That amount of money saves an elderly person and gives them dignity in their twilight years," he said.
Our visit to Nyaka reinforced our belief that with a little money and a lot of heart, we can help bring hope into a place devastated by the AIDS crisis. The children and the grannies are that hope. At both ends of the age spectrum, I saw hope shining forth.
I was able to visit the children in their homes along with the grannies who are about to enter their homes. They are so proud of who they are and what they have in their futures.
One evening as I and the group from Sacred Heart were driving back from a far distant granny's new home, the sun was setting around 7 p.m. and I saw a small girl in her purple Nyaka uniform still walking home in the dying light. She smiled and waved at us, and I thought, "What a heart this child has! She walks all this way in the darkness of morning and in the fading light of dusk. Why? Because Nyaka School is not only her hope, it is her life. She'll get up tomorrow morning and walk back to school."
As one of my group said, "They walk to school in the darkness, they walk home in the dark. Nyaka school is their only light."
(To find out more about the Nyaka Foundation, visit its site on Facebook.)