Growing Up in the Face of AIDS
France Griggs Sloat
Like the Jesuit explorers before him, Terry Charlton, S.J., was not afraid to go where he was needed, even the most remote regions of the world. In his formative years, he taught theology and philosophy at Xavier between 1972-1979 and was a member of the campus ministry staff. But by 1979, his thoughts had drifted to Africa where the Catholic Church was nascent and the AIDS epidemic had not yet emerged. Nine years later, after completing a doctorate in theology, he arrived in Ghana to work at a retreat center and in 1990 moved to Nairobi to teach Jesuit seminarians. There he became involved with the Christian Life Community—and there he met David Dinda Odhiambo.
David was a teenager when they met, and Charlton was taken by the boy’s story. David was a little boy of 3 when his father died of AIDS in 1988. Caught in the initial wave of the epidemic, which swept through in the early 1980s, David’s father was one of 13 million infected and about 2.5 million people worldwide who would succumb to the disease by 1992. Experts were predicting the worst, and David, living with his mother and six siblings in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, was right in the thick of it.
For seven years, she supported the family by selling beans and corn at a small kiosk in the narrow streets of Kibera. Her name was Benta, David says, and she was a community leader. “She was making sure that everybody was living equally in spite of AIDS.”
But Benta, it turns out, had the virus, too, and died in 1995. David was 10 and suddenly an orphan. The family broke up and he ended up living with an older brother in Kibera. Together, they survived doing odd jobs around the slum. David sold water, collecting it in containers and hauling it on a cart to his customers. He made about a dollar a day.
When his brother moved away in 2001, David, at 15, lived alone in the one-room, mud-walled house, selling water and doing odd jobs to survive. It was hard, but it was all he knew and somehow, his spirit stayed alive. “I have to cope with the life because there is no other way,” he says. But school, which he’d left so many years before, was fast becoming a faded memory for him. Then in 2003, when he was 18, David was approached by members of the Christian Life Community, who offered to send him to school. The group, part of an international movement of Jesuit-inspired lay members led in Nairobi by Charlton, had seen the suffering in Kibera and had figured out a way to help. They would raise money to pay for AIDS orphans, whose parents had died of the disease, to go to high school.
David was taken aback. He’d been on his own and out of school so long that he was afraid to go. “I thought, it is too late for me.” But he went anyway, attending a school nearby. That’s when he and Charlton met, and that’s when his life changed forever.
As the AIDS epidemic ravaged the sub-Saharan continent during the 1980s and 1990s, members of the Christian Life Community became aware of the children the dying parents left behind. The parents told the Christians their main worry was for their children. What kind of future would they have if they had no education? In Kenya and most of Africa, families must pay for high school. Who would pay after they died?
By 2003, the Christian group decided they would fill in where the dying parents left off. They raised enough money to send 12 students to high school, and David Odhiambo was one. Each had to have lost their parents to AIDS, or the surviving parent had to be infected with the virus. They didn’t have to look far to find students, as the epidemic had fully invaded the thickly populated Kibera slum where nearly a million people are squeezed into 550 acres. It’s the biggest slum in sub-Saharan Africa, and living conditions are dismal—mud-walled huts, tin roofs, limited electricity, no running water, no plumbing, trash in the streets and sewage-filled ravines. People cook over open fires outside.
“When we started thinking about the school, it proved to be a good place because of the tremendous need there,” Charlton says.
The students did well that first year, but in November 2003, Charlton and the group realized they had to do more. They decided to establish their own school, a British-style college-preparatory school modeled in the Jesuit tradition, but they had only a month to do it. Undeterred, Charlton put on his fundraising hat and returned to the U.S., visiting places with deeper pockets than Kenya, including the Xavier campus, where his University and Jesuit friends gave him financial support. With money in hand, the founding group hired the teachers and secured a building in time for classes to start in January 2004.
With a total of 55 students, including the 12 returning for their second year, they moved into an obscure, blue-painted, two-story wooden structure on the edge of Kibera. It has rough cement floors, very little light and a second-story view of the teeming alleyways below. They named it St. Aloysius Gonzaga Secondary School—the first high school in the world for AIDS orphans—and the students fell in love with it. “For me I really loved going to the school because I found there was a difference between St. Aloysius and other schools,” Odhiambo says. “Everybody was friendly to me, and I was getting help to pay rent. We had breakfast and lunch every day. Apart from that, trying to survive you get so that you had food from school and nothing at home, so what you are given at school was enough for us.”
Odhiambo and the other students, some walking several miles from home, attended school six days a week. They’d stay at school as long as they could, playing sports and studying, until they were sent home. At night, David would study by the light of a kerosene lamp using fuel the school provided, notebooks and pens the school gave him and textbooks borrowed from class. He slept on a wooden bed with a foam mattress. “We have to chase them out at the end of the day, and they’re waiting for us when we unlock the school at 7:30 a.m.,” Charlton says. “If David hadn’t been able to go to secondary school, he might still be selling water.”
Odhiambo is a proud member of the first class to graduate from St. Aloysius in November 2006 and today, at 22, he’s a student at a local college studying community development. He still lives in his one-room hut in Kibera, but he is one of the lucky ones. He is AIDS-free, and his education has given him confidence—and hope. He plans to use his college degree to make life better for the people of Kibera.
“St. Aloysius has been important for my life because I am lucky to be the one who has graduated from high school in our family,” Odhiambo says. “We had seven in my family and I’m the last, and I’m the only one to graduate.” The school, meanwhile, now has 240 students and survives on donations, mainly from U.S. benefactors. It also has a new mission—raising additional funds for each graduate to ensure their start in a professional school or college—and Charlton was back on Xavier’s campus in March, giving a presentation on the school and raising more money for the school’s college fund. The goal, he says, is to help more AIDS orphans like David Odhiambo secure a healthy future.