Impoverished women from war-torn Uganda, many of them with HIV, perform arduous labor for weeks to raise nearly $900 for local hurricane victims

Thursday, November 24, 2005
Reported by Bruce Nolan of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans told their story on Thanksgiving Day. The Dallas Morning News repeated it in an editorial last week.

 

A WEALTH OF COMPASSION

Impoverished women from war-torn Uganda, many of them with HIV, perform arduous labor for weeks to raise nearly $900 for local hurricane victims

The Kireka slum clings to a stony hillside above Kampala, Uganda, home to at least 5,000 impoverished refugees who live in hand-fashioned shelters bordered by outdoor latrines.

The hillside is not only home, but work: Strip quarries line its face. Men dig out its larger rocks, while hundreds of women spend their days in stooped manual labour, pounding the rocks by hand into walnut-sized stones for sale as construction material. They earn about $1.20 per day.

So American aid worker Amy Cunningham could scarcely believe it when she was summoned to Kireka last month for a festive celebration in which dozens of women handed over nearly $900 in wages: their gift to victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

“I was just completely blown away,” Cunningham said. “At first I thought, ‘This can’t be true. These people are just scraping by.’ But I went to the ceremony, and they were so happy to be able to send over this money. They were just overwhelmed with joy because they were able to do something to help.” 


The women turned over their money to AVSI, a Catholic Italian aid organization in Kampala, which will forward it to an AVSI office in the United States. In a few weeks, the money, combined with donations AVSI has collected from other sources, will be sent to families in New Orleans, Metairie, St. Bernard Parish and other hard-hit communities, said Jackie Aldrette, an AVSI worker in Washington, D.C.

The charity of the Kireka residents is partly the story of Rose Busingye, a charismatic 36-year-old Ugandan nurse who founded Meeting Point International, a private relief organization that has embedded itself in Kireka to help the people who live there.

Cunningham said she marvels at women like Busingye, organizers whose compassion, strength and optimism draw women into tight-knit communities that sustain their members in the face of crushing circumstances. Many of the women of Meeting Point International — in fact, most of those who donated their work to New Orleans — are infected with HIV, Busingye said.

“There are so many groups out there that would basically give you the shirt off their backs if you needed it,” Cunningham said. “They are so empowering. These are very strong women who identify, in particular, with suffering.

“We would consider them disenfranchised, but they are just extraordinary. They just said, ‘We can do this.’ And they did it.” Before encountering Meeting Point, many of the women of Kireka were emaciated and abandoned to the march of their untreated illnesses.

“We help them bring back dignity and values that seem to be lost,” Busingye said. “We give medical support. We support their children and provide education, food to those who do not have any.

“We do not spoon-feed. We do not want them to feel like beggars. We try to help them get some little income, to do some little business.” The motto of the Meeting Point is “One Heart,” which means “the heart of man has no race,” Busingye said. “It moves to another human being wherever there is suffering.”

The women’s plan

Weeks ago, the women breaking rocks on the hillside above Kireka heard the news of Katrina’s devastation in the United States. Busingye said their hearts had been touched last year, when they donated some of their earnings to victims of the tsunami in Southeast Asia. But she said she did not have the heart to ask for another effort, so she asked only that the women pray for Katrina’s victims.

But they wanted to do more. In a written account of their relief effort, Busingye told AVSI that one of the women, Akullu Margret, told her she knew she would die of AIDS. “When I die, my children will be left like those in America. Someone will have to care for them. I want to care for someone also. I want to give a lunch, or at least a malaria treatment.”

The women of Kireka believe that “those people who are suffering, they belong to us. They are our people. Their problems are our problems. Their children are like our children,” Busingye said.

Soon 200 women pledged their work. They broke rocks for weeks and donated most of their wages to the Katrina pot. A few others turned over their revenue from selling bananas, necklaces and small chairs. At a ceremony in Kireka last month, Cunningham and other officials were invited to receive the women’s gift, which amounted to 1.6 million Ugandan shillings, or $800 to $900.

Cunningham said she was struck by the women’s joy at being able to make the donation. There was dancing and seemingly endless testimonials as individual workers explained their motives for giving, she said. Many are members of the Acholi tribe, driven out of the northern part of Uganda by a bloody, long-running civil war. “One told me, ‘We know what it’s like to lose our homes,’ ” Cunningham said.

The celebration included a rock-breaking contest at the quarry in which the visitors were invited to match up against the chronically ill women. The women of Kireka won. “I tried it; it was incredibly difficult,” Cunningham said.