President Bush’s naming of Randall Tobias to oversee his $15 billion AIDS program for Africa and the Caribbean is welcome news here in Kenya, welcome because it advances the process of putting these desperately needed funds to work against this horrible epidemic. While the United States has come under a great deal of international criticism over the past year, the U.S. remains the most generous of nations, and indeed is the greatest and sometimes only hope for millions of suffering people around the world, including the drastically increasing community of AIDS orphans we serve at our hospice. As a Jesuit priest and medical doctor, I feel that countless prayers have been answered.
At the same time, many of us involved in providing care to these beautiful yet profoundly suffering people are concerned about how this money will be distributed. Sadly, but unmistakably, Kenya — like many African nations — has suffered decades of uncertain political leadership. Funds appropriated for medical relief somehow wind up in other pockets. Progress is being made: The former director of the national hospital and the “permanent secretary” at the ministry of health have been dismissed after questionable financial practices were revealed. The recently elected Kenyan president has given every indication that he is trying to solve this problem.
But full stability has not been reached. Until that happens, relief agencies are urging that these funds be primarily distributed through the private and often faith-based network that serves most of the Kenyan population. This is not a sectarian plea. This is a plea for what works best to save the most lives and reduce the greatest amount of suffering.
There is no question as to the invaluable contribution faith-based organizations have made in Kenya. The Catholic effort began in East Africa 100 years ago and includes workers from France (White Fathers), England (Mill Hill Missionaries), Ireland (Kiltegan Fathers), and Italy (Verona and Consolata missionaries). Dr. Albert Sweitzer, the Church of Scotland, the Anglican, Presbyterian, and other mainline Protestant denominations have also played a vital role. We have departed from the Colonial-era habit of proselytizing and instead evangelize by action, manifesting the words of Mark 25: “When you did it for my least brethren, you did it to me.”
Those words brought me to Kenya. I was a practicing psychiatrist in Washington before hearing the call to the priesthood, and in 1991 opened our Kenyan hospice called Nyumbani “home” in Swahili. We currently care for 91 children, with an outreach program for 600 other AIDS children. Our mission is to give the best nutritional, medical, psychosocial, and spiritual care possible to those living out their days at Nyumbani. In this effort we have been blessed by many visitors and volunteers — including Sen. Bill Frist, a medical doctor who is a strong supporter of Nyumbani.
We are doing all possible to stem the tide of suffering, but there is no sense in downplaying the struggle we face. Within ten years, there may be as many as 40 million AIDS orphans in sub Sahara Africa. The United States’ generous provision could not have come at a better time. We simply must make sure the money is put to the best possible use.
President Bush has recognized the central role faith-based institutions play in this effort, saying that “because so much of the health care in sub-Sahara Africa is provided by facilities associated with churches and religious orders, we must ensure that the legislation provides the greatest opportunity for faith-based and community organizations to fully participate in helping a neighbor in need.” It is our hope, and fervent prayer, that Mr. Tobias is of the same mind. Lives truly do hang in the balance.
— Fr. Angelo D’Agostino, S.J., M.D., is the founder and medical officer of Nyumbani Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya that was established for abandoned children with HIV/AIDS.