Belfast Telegraph

The small mercy that can mean life or death in Africa

More than a million Ugandans are HIV-positive. But Tearfund is making a difference by supplying something as simple as water. Alf McCreary reports

Diana is a Ugandan mother-of-six, who is HIV positive and is striving to make the best of a life for herself and her children for as long as she can.

She is one of the human faces of an illness, which currently affects some 1.2 million people in her country.

Though Uganda is regarded as a model for Africa in the fight against HIV/Aids, because of strong government leadership and effective public health education, an estimated 64,000 Ugandans died from the illness in 2009. Some 1.2 million children have been orphaned in Uganda by the HIV/Aids epidemic in the past three decades.

Diana talked to me ahead of this week's World Aids Day about her struggle to deal with her devastating illness and how help from a project backed by Tearfund is helping her to cope.

My encounter with Diana was part of a visit to Africa to look at the work of Tearfund, the UK Christian charity, which has a regional office in Belfast and wide support across Northern Ireland.

Diana's husband, Gabriel, died from Aids three years ago aged just 37. She said: "A year later, I started feeling unwell. I had to carry a large jerry can of water three times a day and the round trip was two miles. Carrying water took several hours each day.

"I began to feel unwell and a hospital diagnosed TB, but I was not convinced. I had received counselling, with others, about HIV/Aids and I contacted the chairman of the group. I had more tests and eventually I was told that I was HIV-positive."

Diana was a widow at 37, with six children aged from 21 down to 10 years old. "My first worry was about them," she added. "They were all tested and, to my relief, they were all HIV-negative."

At first, Diana was confined to bed, but with medical treatment, she began to gain strength. An important factor in her recovery was a ready supply of water to her home, which was provided by the Anglican Diocese of Kigezi, with support from Tearfund and other sponsors.

Their water and sanitation project helps to channel spring water through pipes to remote rural villages using a gravity-feed scheme. It also harvests plentiful rainwater in large, home-based containers.

This means that people with HIV/Aids, like Diana, have been given priority access to safe water in places where many have died from water-borne diseases.

"There is no way that I could have kept on carrying water as I did previously," said Diana. "The new scheme helped to save my life."

At first, she was very bitter when her illness was diagnosed. "I cursed everyone and everything. I was full of self-pity and I asked 'Why me'?

"However, I had counselling and I tried to accept the facts of life that these things do happen to people. I have a strong Christian faith and this helps me.

"God decided when I would enter this world and I believe that God will also decide when it is time for me to leave."

Though survival is a struggle, Diana remains positive: "I have taken out a loan to run a little stall selling foodstuffs.

"One of my daughters was married and I received two cows as part of her dowry, so that helps to keep me going."

Sadly, however, not all such stories have such a positive outcome. Earlier on the afternoon that I interviewed Diana, I met three teenagers, who had lost both parents from Aids.

Fiona, who is 17, and her three brothers live in a small mud hut high on a hillside. They used to spend hours carrying water from a spring deep in the valley, but now they, too, have ready access to water as part of the Kigezi scheme.

They have few material possessions. As Fiona and her brothers, Habat (14) and Cedric (11), talked to me, I noticed that the only furniture they owned consisted of a few chairs. They did not even have a table.

Fiona is a trained seamstress, but she cannot afford to buy a sewing machine. She would like to be a nurse, but sometimes she works on a banana plantation for less than $1 a day. Her older brother, Alex Tuesday, also works on a banana plantation for the same paltry sum to help feed the family.

In spite of their geographical remoteness, the family has some modern heroes. When I asked Fiona who, or what, she admired most, her face lit up and she said "Arsenal" - not quite the answer I had expected.

Fiona's greatest regret was not knowing her parents, who died shortly after she was born. She and her brothers were reared by her grandparents, Fred and Faith, now in their seventies. They had to help pay for the funeral of their son who, because of his illness, could not keep up the payments to a village council fund for his burial.

Fred told me: "It was difficult for us, at our age, to rear four young children, but they have turned out well and we are proud of them."

The scourge of Aids causes great suffering and misery in a country which has many other problems.

But the work of Tearfund and its partners brings help and hope to places where it is needed most. It is the kind of work that really does make a difference to ordinary people in big ways.


From Belfast Telegraph