It’s a terrible sentiment, but I know this to be true – as a teenager I lost my father to AIDS and it left my family desperate. With no income we were thrown out of our home. There was no question – me and my brothers and sisters had to drop out of school to earn what little money we could to keep our family alive. But it wasn’t enough. I remember a time for three nights and three days we fed only on avocados which we received from working our hands raw, digging for neighbours.
For me, the moment that changed my life was when my grandmother gave me my first hope of what was possible. Early one morning she called out to us children and said that we are shaming our father: “Mobilise yourselves, farm your land and you will have own food”.
It was the push I needed: with hard work and determination we all worked together to grow food and earn money. By the following year we had enough to send me back to school and now my whole family has succeeded. From that life-changing moment, and with the support of my family, I have been able to graduate with a degree in Adult and Community Education and I now have a family of my own. It makes me happy when I return from the field and my wife and sons are waiting to welcome me home.
Knowing what was possible I decided that I wanted to help others who were in the same situation: those whose parents had been stolen by HIV/AIDS; and I began to work with Send a Cow in the Rakai District of Uganda.
In the mid 1980s a strange illness had spread like wildfire throughout the region. Researchers at the nearby Makerere University studied the illness, which they called ‘slim disease’ for the extreme weight-loss it caused. The illness turned out to be AIDS and over the next three decades it has continued to ravage families in Rakai. It is assumed that 30 percent of the child-bearing population in Rakai is HIV-infected – which will leave so many children parentless. But we know they are not powerless, as my family proved.
Yes, these children have so many challenges. They see others who have more than them and they can start stealing and getting into trouble. But then we bring them up. They start to become human beings.
My team at Send a Cow works with families of orphaned and vulnerable children, teaching them the life-skills they haven’t learnt from their parents: from farming their land, to hygiene and even more importantly, offering the emotional support that they so desperately need. These children call me Uncle. I am only happy when they are happy.
We have recently launched the Ugandan Orphans Project to help even more of the thousands of children in Rakai who need our help. Children like Kasiita; he too lost his parents as a teenager and has now foregone his chances for an education to bring up his siblings.
His biggest fear is that his family will break down more: the boys may run off to the city or become involved in crime, and the girls may run away with an older man who say they will look after them, but often give them HIV. And, because the men can afford medication, they go on to infect others whilst the women and girls die.
When I look in Kasiita’s eyes I can see he is overwhelmed by hopelessness – this young man is doing all he can to keep his brothers and sisters alive and together as a family and I pray that, if we have enough support, we are able to change his life and experience the incredible difference I know Send a Cow can make. For him and the hundreds of children who make up this lost generation of Uganda.
When the children lose hope, I am glad to restore it.
Robert Tamuzade works for Send a Cow Uganda as an Extension Worker in the Rakai District, offering practical and emotional training to orphaned and vulnerable children. Orphaned himself as a boy, he knows how to relate to children in need and help them to build sustainable futures. He lives at home with his wife and two sons.