Order Aids African AIDS Orphans
8/1/2015Jennifer Reed and Jacinta W. Odongo
At first sight, the Marengoni Primary School in the village of Kikumango, in the Central Uganda district of Nakaseke, resembles other highly regarded educational facilities. It includes classrooms, dormitories, an administration block, a library and a student hall, each with clean, brightly colored walls. But behind the smiles of students eager to learn, each one has a painful personal history to bear, for this is a school for orphans and needy children. Most of them have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, which has afflicted Uganda for over two decades.
Named after Comboni Missionary Father Giovanni (John) Marengoni — who co-founded the Congregation of the Apostles of Jesus with Comboni Bishop Sixtus Mazzoldi in 1968 — the school’s construction was funded by the Knights of Columbus beginning in 2012. Thanks to the Order’s support, the school currently provides education to more than 300 pupils, ranging in age from 4 to 13, including 160 girls and 60 boys who board there.
“This partnership between the Apostles of Jesus and the Knights of Columbus has made such a huge difference — more than we ever expected,” said Father Paul Gaggawala, director of mission promotion for the Apostles of Jesus. “Dreams that we once felt were impossible to ever be realized have come true because of this partnership.”
MISSION TO THE MOST VULNERABLE
Three decades ago, Nakaseke was the site of a guerrilla war, during which residents lived in almost complete isolation and deprivation. Hundreds of thousands were internally displaced or killed.
In 2008, a schoolteacher named Judith Kaizi, whose family had fled the area during the war, recognized the educational needs of the local children. Though the war had ended, they were now affected by the AIDS epidemic and abject poverty. Kaizi organized classes with 56 students, meeting under a tree.
“I saw too many children lonely and lost in Nakaseke after the loss of their parents and relatives,” said Kaizi. “Some of them were lured into use of drugs, while the girls were getting married at a very tender age. I knew that something had to be done to help these children, especially the girls.”
In 2009, Kaizi received help from the Apostles of Jesus and soon found a better location for the school.
The effort was a natural extension of the community’s work. More than 400 miles away, in Nairobi, Kenya, the Apostles of Jesus AIDS Ministry (AJAM) had been mobilizing clergy, religious and laity since 2000 in a faith-based response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. According to the U.N., approximately 70 percent of the estimated 35 million people living with HIV are in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Knights’ charitable support for the Apostles of Jesus’ ministries began on a local level when Father Gaggawala was serving as the state chaplain of Pennsylvania.
In 2010, Robert Klugiewicz of Holy Name of Jesus Council 14018 in Harrisburg, Pa., and his wife, Jane, accompanied Father Gaggawala on a mission trip to see the congregation’s work in Africa. Upon his return, Klugiewicz relayed his experience to his fellow Knights and immediately garnered assistance from his and other local councils and assemblies. The Knights’ material support provided essential items for the Marengoni Primary School and its children: clothing, school furniture, used textbooks, mosquito netting for children’s beds, and even starter livestock for the adjacent self-sustaining farm run by the Apostles of Jesus.
“This program fits completely with the mission of the Knights of Columbus,” Klugiewicz said. “Every Knight is responsible for showing charity to those he encounters. If we can provide charity for the Marengoni Primary School, it certainly can bring about a different life for these children.”
During his annual report at the Supreme Convention in August 2011, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson announced that the Supreme Council would partner with the Apostles of Jesus to expand services for orphaned children in Uganda and Kenya.
“Of course, the Knights of Columbus cannot do everything — we cannot solve every problem. But where we can help, we do so. And I believe that we can help alleviate the suffering of at least some children orphaned by AIDS,” the supreme knight said.
The Supreme Council initially provided $350,000 for the school in Uganda and a dining hall and classrooms for AJAM in Kenya.
Klugiewicz, shortly after becoming grand knight of his council, returned with his wife to Africa in 2012 as construction was underway. This time, they brought pictures of Venerable Michael McGivney, which were hung in the student hall named in his honor.
Archbishop Emeritus Eusebius J. Beltran of Oklahoma City, who was the first U.S. bishop to invite the Apostles of Jesus to minister in his diocese, also traveled to Uganda that year to visit and dedicate the school.
Upon his arrival, the archbishop was presented with a cow — an immense symbol of affection and appreciation. He asked the children to take care of it for him on the farm there.
“The great joy that the people showed in welcoming us is memorable,” Archbishop Beltran said. “They have gratitude for whatever help the Church gives them.”
The archbishop, who has been associated with the Knights of Columbus since his teenage years as a Columbian Squire, immediately recognized the portrait of Father McGivney and the emblem of the Order.
“I was delighted to see that the Knights of Columbus was sponsoring this effort,” he said. “I’m a tremendous supporter of the Knights because I see them as a sign of the fulfillment of the mission of the Church. That’s what the Church is all about — proclaiming the Good News of Jesus.”
EDUCATION, HEALING AND HOPE
Among the K of C-supported programs of the Apostles of Jesus in Kenya is a school for children whose parents have died from the AIDS epidemic or who are living with the disease themselves. The school facility provides meals, education, religious instruction and medical care to upward of 400 children, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
“Education is key,” said Father Gaggawala. “The more they are educated, the more they can get over the stigma or discrimination because of their illness. They come to understand the disease and how to live with it. It is essential for them to reclaim their dignity and to know that they can participate in the life of society.”
According to Father Firminus Shirima, the director of AJAM, new HIV infections in Kenya declined from 166,000 per year in 2009 to 100,000 in 2012. HIV in adults has likewise declined from its peak of nearly 14 percent in 2001 to its current level of 6.4 percent.
“All these outcomes could not have been attained without the joint efforts of many sectors and stakeholders, including our Church,” Father Shirima said.
In fact, faith-based organizations such as the Catholic Medical Mission Board and Caritas Internationalis provide the majority of AIDS-related services in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in rural areas.
In 2013, a year after providing funds for the dining hall and classrooms in Kenya, the Supreme Council purchased a new bus to transport children to and from school each day. Additional K of C grants covered the cost of bringing electricity to the Marengoni Primary School in Uganda and constructing a new girls’ dormitory there.
“When the District Education Officer of Nakaseke visited us last year, he was speechless,” said Father Godfrey Manana, director of the school, which employs 15 teachers plus 12 support staff. “He couldn’t believe that such a remote area can have a school of this standard and supplied with electricity.”
Together with its rigorous Catholic academic program, the Ugandan school offers a range of extracurricular activities, including music, dancing, soccer, volleyball and farming. As a result, the students demonstrate a strong desire to take care of the buildings and grounds. “They dedicate every Friday afternoon to general cleaning of the whole school,” said Father Manana.
One of the students, 13-year-old Lawrence Mutagwa, beamed with pride as he described his educational experience.
“My school is the best in Uganda because it has everything good for me to get a quality education — good classrooms, school furniture and even electricity to help me study at night,” he said.
The partnership between the Knights and the Apostles has not only built facilities, it has also built relationships.
“Those children, right now, as young as they are, if you say, ‘Knights of Columbus,’ they know what you are talking about,” Father Gaggawala said. “If you say, ‘Father Michael McGivney,’ they know who he is.”
Upon the completion of the girls’ dormitory at the Marengoni Primary School earlier this year, the children asked Father Gaggawala how they could thank the Knights of Columbus for their generosity. In response, the priest presented them with prayer cards for the canonization of Father McGivney, urging them to pray.
“To my surprise, when I returned four weeks later, they could say this prayer by heart!” Father Gaggawala exclaimed. “Every morning at assembly, they say their prayers together, and this is one of the prayers they say by memory. There is a bond that this has created, much more profound than simply structures.”
The principal of the school, Sister Eliamulike Kiungai, a member of the Evangelizing Sisters of Mary, the counterpart to the Apostles of Jesus, summed up how profoundly the partnership has touched hearts and transformed lives.
“The Knights’ support has provided care for orphans and educational opportunities to needy children by providing healing to hurting hearts, hope for a better future and practical skills that can change the course of a child’s life for the better,” she said. “These children are the leaders of tomorrow, and they are also children that God cares about today.”
JENNIFER REED is managing editor of The Catholic Witness, the newspaper of the Diocese of Harrisburg.
JACINTA W. ODONGO is a media officer for the Uganda Episcopal Conference.