The past two days I spent in a very remote area in the Gaza province about a 6 hour drive from Maputo, Mozambique. (I'm told the drive can take 3 hours but we were driving in really bad rain storms which made the roadways very slow and treacherous.)
I visited two of the remote Reencontro centers. The first center was in village so remote that we were on a dirt road for about 3 hours to get to it. It felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. Literally. When we arrived at the center we were greeted to a room full of singing children (all orphaned by AIDS) and the wonderful Reencontro volunteers. These volunteers are, themselves, very poor and yet they volunteer their lives to helping this generation of young children who have been abandoned by the AIDS crisis.
We met with several families and heard such heart-breaking stories. I will post some of those individual stories in the blogs that follow.
The second day I visited the center in Xai Xai which was the nicest of the centers I have seen. One of the biggest benefactors of Reencontro is Graca Machel. She is married to Nelson Mandela and is the widow of the former president of Mozambique who died in a plane crash several years ago. (I think uniquely she is the only woman to ever have been first lady twice - in Mozambique and in South Africa.) She has focussed her efforts in the Gaza province which has been devastated by the AIDS crisis. (For perspective, the Maputo branch of Reencontro works with 1,500 children and the Gaza branch works with 7,000 children.) She donated this building and spends a lot of time working with Olinda and Reencontro to help support the devastating crisis affecting this region.
I asked why there were so many more people impacted by AIDS in the Gaza province. There were a couple of reasons. One, a lot of the laborers in this region worked in South Africa and contracted the virus there and then when they came back spread the disease. Also, polygamy is common so the disease spreads quickly through families. Reencontro is working tirelessly on education and prevention so this cycle can someday stop.
I will also tell some of the stories of the children I met in Xai Xai. Unfortunately, since it was raining quite hard, we could not do as many visits as we would have liked. I did have the chance to have a lengthy meeting with the volunteers and the directors of the Xai Xai Reencontro branch. These people give their daily lives to this fight. They are heroes beyond measure.
The other project I was able to get some insight on was a project that the LA-based architect Polly Osborne is working on called "A Nossa Casa" ("Our Home"). Malena Ruth, director of AMF, recruited Polly and her husband Tim to work to build a center that will provide housing, schooling, and vocational training for children orphaned by AIDS. It's an enormous project but one that is truly inspiring. I saw the grounds where they are hoping to build the center and I also was able to bring the plans to Olinda and her team. They were beyond happy to see all of the work Polly had done.
Polly had asked me to check in on one of the families she had visited when she was here in June. We drove as far as we could and then had to walk up a big hill to get to their remote reed hut where they were living. When Polly was here she met the mother who was in the final stages of her battle with AIDS. When we arrived I met the two young children (their mother had passed away after Polly's visit.) It was truly heart-breaking. These two beautiful children were living alone in extreme poverty without any family member to help them. Thank goodness for Reencontro and the help they provide. But, the truth is, the day-to-day life for these two angels is complete hardship. At one point, Anish, the older girl who was so brave and strong for us and her younger brother (Martin), just broke down in tears. Heavy, heavy sobs. It was so chilling to witness this. I realized, in that moment, that I had not seen any of the children cry since I have been in Africa. They all have such sad eyes but are almost numb to the pain. This little girl emoting in such a way put a pain in my heart. It puts a pain in my heart just typing this. I reached in my pocket and gave her all the money I had. I wanted to give her my suitcase full of clothes. I wanted to take them away from this horrible situation that nobody on this planet deserves to be in. It crushed me.
Thank goodness there are people like Malena and Polly and Olinda and so many other people whom I have met who are beyond the chatter of what to do and are doing the work on the ground with these children. They are not being paid but are simply moved to action by the world in which we live in where children are being abandoned without any hope.
(I posted a picture of Olinda because I realized I hadn't done that yet. The other pictures show that during our visit we gave these children some food and cooking oil and some other rudimentary supplies.)