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Nyumbani continues pioneering work for HIV orphans in Kenya
Diplomatic Pouch / October 10, 2008

By Larry Luxner

On Sept. 26, about 400 people braved an early-evening downpour, passing up the chance to watch the widely anticipated vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin for something they considered far more important: helping HIV-positive kids halfway around the world.

The Nyumbani 15th Annual USA Benefit Dinner — a lavish affair hosted by the Italian Embassy — raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Children of God Relief Fund Inc. This nonprofit organization supports Nyumbani, a facility located just outside Nairobi, Kenya, for children infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

"It was probably one of the most memorable fundraising events we've ever held," said supporter Lawrence Dunham, former U.S. deputy chief of protocol. "The response we got from other board members was highly favorable."

Attendees feasted on roasted baby beets stuffed with goat cheese brulee, prosciutto-wrapped chicken roulade, sweet potato and spinach gratin and spiced pecan brittle, among other delicacies. In a fitting tribute to the two countries involved, dinner was topped off by gourmet Kenyan coffee and tea service, along with a choice of red and white Italian wines.

Luxury was also evident in the items offered during the evening's live and silent auction. Among them: a glittering cross pendant with 11 diamonds on a 16-inch chain, worn by Nyumbani's executive director, Sister Mary Owens, when she was blessed by the Pope (retail value: $2,000). Also up for bidding were a pair of ladies' white gold and amethyst diamond earrings (retail value: $1,600), a one-week stay at the Lookout Cove Villa in Negril, Jamaica (retail value: $5,000) and at least 50 other goodies ranging from restaurant gift certificates to Yves St. Laurent handbags to dog-grooming services.

The glitz — albeit for a good cause — contrasted with the desperate poverty that plagues most victims of the AIDS epidemic sweeping Africa. An estimated 22 million sub-Saharan Africans are currently living with HIV, with 1.9 million new cases reported in 2007 alone. More than 11 million African children have been orphaned by AIDS.

Sister Mary, an Irish Catholic born in Dublin, has lived in Kenya for the last 40 years. She and the late Rev. Angelo D'Agostino — a Jesuit priest and psychologist, affectionately known as Father D'Ag — established Nyumbani in 1992 to address the needs of such children.

"After the government of Kenya declared AIDS was a national catastrophe, we could be much more open about it. With the growth in awareness and the promotion of HIV testing, prevention strategies kicked in," Sister Mary told Diplomatic Pouch during the dinner. "HIV incidence is now 7.8 per 100, down from over 14 per 100."

After Father D'Ag died of a sudden heart attack in November 2006, Sister Mary took over leadership of Nyumbani, which is currently home to 105 children.

"Padre Agostino was an example through his life, and his ability to follow his faith according to the Roman Catholic Church," said Stefano Beltrame, first counselor and commercial attach้ at the Italian Embassy. He officiated in the absence of Italian Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta, who was attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Sister Mary said that Nyumbani, which means "home" in Swahili, offers a warm, loving home to kids who would otherwise be abandoned by society.

"These children feel stigmatized, and that's the injustice of the whole thing. They know that people see them as different. Some have been rejected by their parents, and others were abandoned on the roadside," she said. "And some were rejected by the extended family after their parents died."

In 2004, Nyumbani won a landmark court case to get HIV-infected children into Kenya's public schools. Since then, the project has been featured by mainstream media, including the New York Times, Reuters, CNN and BBC-TV.

"Today, there is knowledge about HIV in Kenya. People know they can't get it by drinking out of the same cup as an HIV-positive person, or by living with a person who is HIV-positive," she explained. "When there's knowledge, people are less fearful and less inclined to stigmatize."

In addition to the village itself, the Lea Toto Community Outreach program helps 2,500 HIV-positive children with food, clothing and medical care through satellite clinics in six Nairobi slum communities. And in 2005, the 1,000-acre Nyumbani Village in the southern province of Kitui was opened, allowing HIV-infected orphans to live with their grandparents.

Sister Mary said that until very recently, it cost $250 per month per child to run Nyumbani. But with the devaluation of the dollar against Kenya's shilling, that's gone up to $300 per month.

"It's expensive to run this program," she told the Pouch, noting that Nyumbani's board of directors provides $12,000 a month. The village itself is supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, meaning that overall, the U.S. government finances about 70% of Nyumbani's budget.

The kids at Nyumbani live in a family cottage setting, which Sister Mary says is very important to their emotional health. As for their physical health, anti-retroviral medicines mean HIV-positive children can now live relatively normal lives — which wasn't the case only a few years ago.

"Thanks to the medication, they're not suffering," she said. "The majority of our kids are healthy, happy and going to school. It's no different than any other medical condition."

Nyumbani receives anti-retroviral drugs for free, thanks to the Bush administration's fund for emergency relief, says Sister Mary, who calls the fund "a tremendous gift from the American people."

For more information on Nyumabani and its projects, visit www.nyumbani.org.

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