Tala, Kenya - When Muani and Kamene, 9-year-old cousins, lost
their mothers to AIDS within a month of each other, the orphaned
girls moved in with their grandparents, sharing a rough-hewn bed
with a single worn blanket in the family's mud-brick hut.
The girls, showing the reddish hair that signals malnutrition,
had no hope of attending school because a $14 school uniform was
far beyond the family's means. Then came the saving embrace of
Monica Ngumi, a diminutive powerhouse of a woman who has been
fighting to rescue her town from AIDS.
Today, the girls proudly wear the red school uniform of Mama
Darlene's Children Center, an elementary school founded by Ngumi.
With funding from four Bay Area nonprofit groups, the center
provides free schooling for AIDS orphans and a number of
unconventional programs -- including a goat giveaway and theater
troupe -- to help the children and educate the community.
"Mama Darlene's is a great example of the small things that can
really change the world," said Natasha Martin, founder and
director of GRACE (Grassroots Alliance for Community Education)
USA, a Half Moon Bay nonprofit group that supports
community-based AIDS projects in Africa.
Martin, an immunologist and former AIDS researcher at UCSF,
helped plant the seed for Mama Darlene's -- named for Ngumi's
eldest daughter -- when she invited Ngumi to a community
development workshop in the Kenyan seaside town of Mombasa in
2000. The activist returned to Tala and mobilized the community
to start a school for orphans.
GRACE made a small grant to the project, which has also received
support from three other Bay Area nonprofits -- the Firelight
Foundation in Santa Cruz, the Temple United Methodist Church in
San Francisco and Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto.
"When I came back and visited her for the first time, I was
astounded at how much she had done," Martin recalled.
About 15 million children worldwide have lost at least one parent
to AIDS, and only 10 percent of them receive assistance from
their government or aid agencies, according to a report released
in October by UNICEF, making programs like Mama Darlene's
Ngumi, a former teacher and administrator in the slums of
Nairobi, opened her school with fewer than 10 children; today,
she educates 150 youngsters, including several disabled children,
in a tidy, six-room cement-block schoolhouse, and provides a free
breakfast of porridge and a lunch of rice, beans, cabbage and
maize for her students.
"Before we started the program, the children were really
suffering," said Ngumi. "They were very weak. Most were
malnourished. Now they are better off and their health has
Sometimes, when the need is great, Ngumi provides a lot more than
food and education.
Joyce Nduku, 12, a cheerful second-grader at the school, was
considered a curse upon her family because she was born with
cerebral palsy. Her mother, who abandoned her when she was just 4
months old, later died of AIDS. Joyce now stays with her
grandparents, who live in a tiny stone hut in the bush, where she
sleeps on torn scraps of dirty foam because the family can't
afford $17 for a mattress.
When Joyce first came to Mama Darlene's, she was unable to walk
or speak. Her 71-year-old grandfather, John Nzioki, would carry
her on his back the three miles to school every day. Last year,
Ngumi arranged for Joyce to have two orthopedic procedures to
straighten her right leg. She now walks the dirt path to school
on her own, a 1 1/2-hour trip each way at her halting pace. A
third operation has been scheduled to correct a tongue deformity
and improve her very limited speech.
"People were wondering, 'How could she possibly learn?' '' said
her grandfather, a slender man with a toothless smile. "Later the
people ask, 'Is that the same girl?' They can't believe it now
because she is in such good condition."
Joyce's progress is one of the bright spots in a community and
nation in the grip of the AIDS epidemic.
"Everybody has been affected or infected by AIDS,'' said Ngumi,
43. "It's very frightening."
Nearly 7 percent of adults in Kenya are HIV-positive, according
to UNAIDS. The country has 1.7 million orphans, 38 percent of
them orphaned by AIDS. In Tala, a town of about 10,000, almost 9
percent of the adult population is HIV-positive, and the disease
claims about six people a month.
AIDS is still considered a death sentence in an area where
U.S.-funded antiretroviral drugs are just starting to trickle
down to communities and, even at $3 a month, are still out of
reach for many of Tala's subsistence farmers. Betty Maweu,
director of a local HIV support group for teenagers, recounted
the story of a man in the neighboring town of Kangundo who hanged
himself because his girlfriend died of AIDS.
Maweu counted her personal losses: a son, a brother-in-law,
cousins -- all dead of AIDS. Ngumi has stories to match: a niece,
a sister-in-law and several cousins have died. Now her sister,
Mary, is infected.
"That's why we should continue working harder," Ngumi said,
"because our loved ones are dying."
Searching for a way to halt the spread of HIV, Ngumi and her
husband, Eliud Muema, have sometimes turned to nontraditional
approaches. They recruited volunteers for a theater group that
makes the rounds of local markets and schools, using humorous
role playing, traditional songs and poems to educate locals about
the hazards of risky sexual behavior.
One recent afternoon, the troupe performed for about 250 people
in the town's dusty market square. After a local dance and
drumming ensemble warmed up the crowd, troupe members delivered a
sobering message, with one performer singing of the pain and
agony of HIV/AIDS. He called on residents to fight the disease:
"You brothers, you are the cause of this -- spreading the disease
to infants and mothers," he said. Then troupe members distributed
free condoms, which were quickly snapped up.
"At least it may save somebody's life," said Patrick Nzyesa, an
HIV counselor and troupe member.
Ngumi has now launched a new venture -- a goat giveaway. Temple
United Methodist Church in San Francisco and Congregation Kol
Emeth in Palo Alto raised $9,000 to buy 90 hardy dairy goats for
destitute local families like Joyce Nduku's. The goats will
supply milk for the children and the goats' offspring will be
sold to help pay for the orphans' high school education once they
graduate from Mama Darlene's.
Meanwhile, the children's center continues to grow, because Ngumi
has vowed never to turn away an orphan. Last year, the Firelight
Foundation donated $4,000 to build two new classrooms.
Jennifer Astone, Firelight's executive director, said the
foundation supports programs like Mama Darlene's because so
little of the funds to help children affected by AIDS makes it
down to the grassroots level.
"When you have a local activist like Monica who's very connected
to the community and understands the importance of the family and
providing services in a meaningful way, you can really have an
impact," Astone said.
"While We Sleep: The Face of AIDS in Africa," an exhibit of
photos by Karen Ande, will run through Dec. 30 in the Milton
Marks Conference Center, lower level, State Office Building, 455
Golden Gate Ave., San Francisco.