“Can we watch one-quarter of some countries’ people die? Can 27 million orphans be left to fend for themselves? We may not be able to solve the entire problem today, but let us not be discouraged from taking the steps necessary to begin the journey.”
– 118 bishops of the Episcopal Church, to President Bush and the US Congress, June 2001
“We have 30 million (AIDS) orphans already. How many more do we have to get, to wake up?”
– Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations
Four years ago, Volker Wagner, a client and friend of ours, took me and my wife Claire aside and asked us to help him with rebuilding the village of Bulembu in Swaziland. The plan was to rebuild in such a way that the village would be both self-sustaining and able to support a significant AIDS orphanage. He was trying to make a difference at a personal level and wanted us to join him and others in making it happen.
The facts about HIV/AIDS in Swaziland are both daunting and depressing (source: UNAIDS Report 2010):
- At 40% (higher among some age groups), the HIV infection rate in Swaziland is the highest in the world.
- Life expectancy has dropped from 60 to age 31 as of the end of 2007 (likely lower than that today).
- Out of a population of approximately 1 million people, HIV has contributed to the increase of orphaned and vulnerable children now estimated at 150,000
What difference could a few people from both Canada and Swaziland make with a plan to house, feed, educate and clothe up to 2,000 AIDS orphans?
Initially I was skeptical about how much difference we would make given the scale of the problem all over Sub-Saharan Africa. After all, I am a numbers guy. I need to see the logic, understand the problem and work out solutions. The AIDS issues in Africa seem to defy both logic and solutions. But of course not everything can be understood by the numbers.
We discovered this when we (there were 8 of us including our three sons and their wives and fiancée) went to Africa to visit Bulembu as part of a once-in-a-lifetime trip for our family.
We started organizing this trip more than a year before (and used every travel point we had). Claire had built a fantastic itinerary that included Capetown, a Kruger National Park safari, Victoria Falls and, of course, Bulembu itself in Swaziland.
The entire experience was more than we could have expected; Bulembu was not only beautiful, but moving as well. What should one expect when visiting 250 orphans? Would they be sad? Feeling deprived in some way? Under-fed and under-educated with little hope for their futures?
So what happened when we met these children who are anywhere from 1-month to 18-years-old? They seemed happy, positive, absolutely well cared for and, above all, loved. You could see it in their faces and the way they would try to engage with you; you could tell from the pride their caregivers had in how “their kids” were doing. This alone made our trip worthwhile.
Their backgrounds were horrible, but their futures look bright.
Each day they get up at 5:00am and help their Aunties prepare breakfast (there are typically 6-8 kids per home each with a caregiver (their “Auntie”) and an assistant). They are in school by about 7:30am and stay until 3 in the afternoon. They all wear uniforms and when they get back from school they complete their homework and help make dinner. The young ones are in bed by 7:00pm and the older kids by 8:00pm (it gets dark in Africa very early).
There is no TV. The school has about 20 PC’s in their computer lab (what they really need are some low cost laptops to allow them to be more mobile). It also has a small library that desperately needs books for the kids, both for learning and simply to work on their reading skills and enjoyment of literature. There is a merit store in the school where kids can trade points they earn for above-average performance in school for gifts. The boys might trade for a soccer ball and the girls for a pair of shoes.
At no point did we get any sense that the kids felt hard done by. In fact, my feeling is they felt lucky that someone cared enough to make them a home with good food, offer them a decent education and give them a sense of purpose with a future.
We spent six days in Bulembu and I can tell you it was transformational for all of us. Perhaps we cannot save the world, but with commitment we can make a difference in the lives of some children. In our view, Bulembu is doing a great job. They have built a small lumber mill, a dairy with 25 cows (soon to be 50), bee hives for honey and bottled water from the springs (Bulembu is almost 4000 feet above sea level and has pristine fresh water). It will take time and effort to make this village self–sustaining, but I believe it will happen and some of these young kids will be there to turn the tide on this AIDS pandemic in Swaziland.
There is no guarantee these efforts will work, but this is a fight worth getting stuck in on. Meeting these kids has certainly convinced us of that. I know other people who have visited this rejuvenated village and their experiences mirror ours. Good work is being accomplished and the positive life these orphans lead is proof.
As some of you know, last year we were one of the sponsors of a concert held for Bulembu and starring the Canadian Tenors, who are big supporters of Bulembu. This year, another Voices for Bulembu concert event will be held in Kelowna at Mission Hill Winery (September 17-19) and later that same weekend at the Chan Centre at UBC (September 19). For more information on the concerts, you can visit the Voices for Bulembu event page.
We’d love for you to attend either one and/or consider supporting the work being done in Bulembu. And, if you would like, you are more than welcome to view our personal pictures of Bulembu.
When it comes to charitable giving it is important to do well by doing good. I know from my conversations with you that many of you have wonderful charities you support. For those of you who are looking to increase your charitable giving, but want to find a worthwhile recipient, then perhaps consider Bulembu (www.bulembu.org).
To be in a position to help others is an incredible gift in itself, and we consider it a privilege to give and support worthy causes. Bulembu was an experience where our family felt we received more than we gave.