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Hope in the Heart of Africa

“Peace is not just the upset of war. Peace is about conditions that exist that allow people to lead quality lives,” says Karambu Ringera (center, in glasses), founder of Peace Initiatives International. Photo: Tim Ryan

Beatrice’s life ended in the gloom of a wooden shack no bigger than a garden shed.

Ndatiga Mutuma mwana wakwa njarene ciaku, na ndina witikio ukamumenyera,” the 34-year-old mother breathed in Kimeru, her native tongue.

I am leaving my son Mutuma in your hands, and I know you will take care of him.

Ndienda ete chukuru.”

I want him to go to school.

Craddling Beatrice’s hand, DU student Karambu Ringera promised to fulfill the dying mother’s wish for her son. Ringera visited often during the next two weeks and hunched at Beatrice’s side, soothing and praying, as AIDS stole the woman’s last breath.


Empowering women and families

As his mother lay dying, 10-year-old Mutuma was outside in the garden, beating at the red African soil with a trowel to make way for corn. Beatrice’s death left him alone; his father (and his mistress) had already died of AIDS—the scourge of much of Africa, including the Kenyan town of Meru where Mutuma lives.

Ringera, a human communication studies doctoral candidate who is a Meru native, says Beatrice and Mutuma’s story is common. “Traditionally, our society is very patriarchic, and the father is expected to look after the family,” Ringera says. “But now, most of the homes are run by the women. When the men get to a certain level of life, they leave a wife for a mistress and they tend to ignore the first family. The women must take care of the children.”

Infected parents become too sick to work (if work is even available) and too poor to pay for life-extending medication. Alienation from extended family—based on fear, shame or superstition—complicates matters because no one is willing to care for orphaned children once the parents are gone.

According to a 2003 UNICEF report, there are more than 11 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa—890,000 in Kenya alone—who have been orphaned by AIDS. By 2010, that number is expected to hit 20 million. Imagine—an entire generation without parents.

As a master’s student at the Iliff School of Theology in 2002, Ringera established Peace Initiatives International (PII)—a nonprofit dedicated to grassroots transformation of conflict and health crisis situations in Africa. Through PII, Ringera is empowering women in Meru to find ways to house, feed and educate AIDS orphans in their own community.

“Peace is not just the upset of war. Peace is about conditions that exist that allow people to lead quality lives,” Ringera says. “The word disease breaks down into ‘dis’ and ‘ease’—or not at ease. You cannot be at peace if your basic needs are not being met.”

For families in Meru, the lack of money, food, facilities and resources have put them in a place of “dis-ease” that is exacerbated by the AIDS crisis, Ringera says.

“A lot of extended families can’t help the children because of the poverty they already live with,” Ringera says. “Some feel that the children are infected, so families don’t want to touch them.” And the arms of the government simply aren’t long or strong enough for such an undertaking, she says.

So the fate of AIDS orphans is left in the hands of individual communities—and even there, the obstacles continue.

“Meru is very community based and people want to help each other—but from a distance,” Ringera admits.


Helping AIDS orphans

Growing up in Meru, Ringera and her five siblings watched their mother care for a neighboring family that was among the first in their community to experience the isolation of HIV/AIDS.

“The husband and wife had AIDS, and they eventually died and left five children,” Ringera says. “The husband kept saying that they were bewitched because one of his brothers was jealous of him. Some of the kids still believe this.

“They were afraid, and they were discriminated against,” she continues. “But the children knew that if they needed anything, they could come to my mother. She helped them with food, and she even paid to have one of the sons educated.”

Ringera says her family responded differently to their infected neighbors because they had been educated about AIDS. Her father, a senior government education officer, made learning a priority for his children. “We all went to school and read and talked about AIDS,” Ringera recalls.

Her mother became known for her generosity, and soon both orphans and dying parents turned to her for help. She became overwhelmed with families in need of food or money and the biggest necessity: someone to care for their children after they die.

In Africa, orphans are less likely to go to school, more likely to be subjected to child labor and malnutrition, and they have an increased chance of mortality the first year after a mother’s death—even among children like Mutuma who are HIV-negative.

When Ringera went home for a visit in 2002, she found a group of Christian women meeting in her mother’s home. “They would meet every Sunday afternoon, and they would pray for each other,” she says. “I started asking them what were the challenges they saw in the community, and they said some of their prayer partners were sick. I asked, ‘What do you want to do about that?’”

With the number of AIDS orphans growing, Ringera says the community couldn’t wait for the government or other institutions to help. There are about 50,000 orphans in the Meru district, notes Ringera, who estimates that 60 percent of those were orphaned by AIDS.

The women were already scraping together some monetary donations as well as food, clothing and other essentials. But they didn’t have enough money to keep the orphans in school, Ringera explains. Even though Kenya’s primary education policy waives tuition costs for all children, fees for uniforms, travel and school maintenance can add up to $120 per year. That’s nearly 90 percent of the average income for a Meru family—far too steep for families with little or no income and for orphans with no family at all.

“I advised them to form a self-help group and to register it with social services,” Ringera says. “Those in the group who were interested paid 100 shillings each to register the group as a community-based organization.”

Thus, the Gakurine Peace Maker Community Based Organization (PEMA) was established under the umbrella of Ringera’s nonprofit PII.

“I said that I would look for ways to help them raise money,” says Ringera, who holds fundraising dinners—complete with authentic Kenyan food and music—when she’s in the United States. “Because of my interest as a future leader of my country, I wanted to work with a grassroots organization because they are the ones making a difference.”

Human communication studies Prof. and Chair Mary Jane Collier, Ringera’s academic adviser, traveled to Kenya last summer and visited with the PEMA women.

“I would call Karambu the inspired leader of the group,” Collier says. “She brings a vision of what can be accomplished, which is combined with what is feasible and practical. She is able to see the strength in the women around her, and her approach is very inclusive and collaborative. The women around her are empowered by her, and she by them.”

So far, 18 orphans—ages 18 months to 25 years—are attending school and thriving in the Meru community thanks to the work of PEMA. In most cases, the group tries to make it possible for the orphans to stay with members of their extended family. To offset the burden, PEMA gives the families extra money for food and shelter and pays for the children’s school fees. “Ninety percent are living with grandparents and 10 percent are living with their mothers, who will eventually die from AIDS,” Ringera says.

When an infected parent is still alive but unable to support his or her children, the group provides money for AIDS drugs for the parent, increasing the amount of time children can stay at home. One of the 22 women in the grassroots group provides counseling to children and their families. Another PEMA member, who is a teacher, helps lead AIDS prevention seminars for area youth.

But knowing that the large number of orphans will persist for years, Ringera says Meru needs another community resource—a group home.

“A group home does not separate a child from the community where they grew up like an orphanage does,” she says. “The child can continue going to the same school, and they can be close to their families.”

The United Nations supports such community-based models as the most effective way to respond to the AIDS orphan epidemic.

A Meru citizen has donated a plot of land to PEMA for a group home, and Ringera is determined to raise the $10,000 needed to build a home for 10 children. Although Mutuma is already away at boarding school, Ringera hopes the facility will allow other orphans to stay closer to home.

But PEMA is just one part of PII. Ringera hopes to cultivate peace and understanding through other programs, including cultural tours, which she launched last year. The premise is that intercultural understanding will be fostered when tourists from other countries experience rural and urban Kenya by living with locals. Ringera also teaches cultural communication courses to ex-patriots, journalists and academics at the University of Nairobi. And she’s developing women’s peace circles—advocacy/discussion groups—to address issues of violence. She also conducts a “peace journalism” program for journalists and offers gender sensitivity training for military peacekeeping personnel in Africa. This July, Ringera will conduct reconciliation workshops in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“My focus is to create a culture of dialoging,” Ringera says. She hopes that by discussing issues openly, people will begin to understand the root of problems like AIDS and take action to achieve peace within their communities, their families and themselves.

“Improving the quality of life within these communities is absolutely dependent on communication,” says Collier, who co-taught an intercultural communication course with Ringera last summer at the University of Nairobi. “Intercultural communication is essential to the understanding of issues like HIV/AIDS because there are diverse interests involved. Women, in particular, understand this and are instruments of peace-building for community change.

“I find Karambu a shining light of hope for all of us,” Collier adds. “She is making a difference in people’s lives by creating programs that have immediate impact and will result in substantial change in the years to come.”


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