When I first saw Judith, Yeseti, Bariki and Joyness standing outside the broken walls of their mud house in 2005, the jelly bears I had brought with me -- a packet for each of them -- suddenly felt so inappropriate. There was no way these children had eaten for days. The packets of bears, which I had been so pleased to bring, now shouted out that I obviously had no idea of the life these children had been leading and I felt ashamed of my ignorance.
Judith was then 16-years-old, but looked no bigger than a 9-year-old, due to chronic malnutrition. She had been looking after her two brothers and one sister since her mother had died from AIDS when Judith was twelve. Their life had a clear routine; every morning with no food in the house, Judith set out before dawn to walk four miles to the nearest town to beg. In a region where average annual income is $110, she didn't beg for money and food that would not be given away -- she begged for the chance to work.
"Mama, can I come and carry water for you today?" she would cry out, or "Father, can I come and work on your farm for you today?" If someone took up her offer, she would work all day, and at the end of the day, she would walk four miles home with food in her arms to feed her brothers and sister, their only meal of the day. But to look at them, she must have walked that journey so many times before my visit, arriving home at night closed in and saying "Sorry, no-one wanted me today." And so they would huddle together on the ground, no blanket, little shelter and hope that there might be food the next day.
Bariki, the younger boy, had stick-like arms and legs and sunken eyes when we visited. He wouldn't have lasted much longer without food. I handed over the jelly bears, but we found someone to go and buy them food that night and left money for a regular supply of food until we could enroll them in our Tumaini program.
In 2012, Judith is now literate, numerate and married with a baby; Yeseti is a cow-herder, in the steps of his father; Joyness is one of the 7 percent of local children who graduate to secondary school and is doing well there and Bariki is being encouraged to pass his elementary school exams next year. But this family's story of suffering is a very familiar one in the region of Kagera, NW Tanzania, East Africa.
Prior to the genocides in the countries of Rwanda and Burundi, which lie across the border from Kagera, HIV infection only afflicted 2.8 percent of this stable, religious community. But as the men of war streamed over the border and raped the women and girls and the refugee camps attracted itinerant men into the region, the HIV rate increased to 28 percent, so that 1 in 3 families were being orphaned.
When my husband and I, general practitioners from the UK, went to work in a Mission Hospital in Kagera in 2001, we were shocked to see children looking after children, children leading each other by the hand looking for food with babies strapped to their backs. A community which had always cared for its orphaned relatives was now unable to absorb any more children into families, as an entire generation of Kagerans fell to AIDS. When a husband died, the wife remarried -- then she died and her new husband remarried and so whole clans lost their generation of parents.
When I returned from our short period of service, I could not forget the children's faces. I tried hard to interest charitable organizations in Kagera, but all were busy elsewhere and I could find no help. After yet another rejection, I called out to God, "Someone has to do something for these children." But be careful what you pray for; I realized that it was me, I had to do something for these children and so in 2003 The Tumaini Fund began.
Tumaini means "hope" in the Swahili language and if anyone needed hope, it was children like Judith, Yeseti, Bariki and Joyness. We are now supporting 20,000 orphans in their communities in Kagera and hope to increase this number to 25,000 by the end of 2012.
This blog is part of our #GivingTuesday series, produced by The Huffington Post and the teams at InterAction, 92nd Street Y,United Nations Foundation, and others. Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday -- which takes place for the first time on Tuesday, November 27 -- is a movement intended to open the holiday season on a philanthropic note. Go to www.givingtuesday.org to learn more and get involved.