ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Ambo’s Hope

An Ethiopian archbishop takes in AIDS orphans

Four years ago, when Mehret was 9, his father died. Mehret’s mother did not last much longer. Both died of AIDS, a disease that is devastating Africa and Mehret’s country of Ethiopia. Mehret’s father, a truck driver, started to get sick about seven years ago. Given the long period between contraction of H.I.V. and the appearance of AIDS symptoms – 10 years is not abnormal – there is no telling when he became infected. Most likely, it was at a truck stop, where prostitution is rampant.

For years, Mehret, who had to drop out of school, and his older brother nursed their sick parents. When they succumbed to the disease, Mehret’s brother struck out on his own, making a meager living as a day laborer. Still a boy, Mehret’s prospects for earning a living were dim. He resorted to begging, loitering on the streets of his hometown of Ambo, a provincial town west of the capital city of Addis Ababa in central Ethiopia.

About two years ago, a priest approached Mehret. They chatted, and the priest was struck by Mehret’s intelligence. Thinking he might be able to help, the priest brought Mehret to a simple single-story building on a nearby hill, home to 20 boys. The orphanage was built three years ago by the Orthodox Archbishop of Western Shoa, Abune Epiphanos, and doubles as a minor seminary. Mehret has lived there for two years.

Though the origins of the disease remain a mystery, most experts believe AIDS began in Africa. Incurable, AIDS has killed millions – almost no patch of inhabitable land has been spared. But while expensive antiviral drugs and public awareness campaigns have helped stem the tide in the West, AIDS continues to spread quickly in the world’s underdeveloped regions.

Africa has been hardest hit. About 34.3 million people in the world have AIDS – 24.5 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa, according to UNAIDS, a task force of the United Nations. About 13.2 million children have been orphaned by the disease, 12.1 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa, only Senegal and Uganda have managed to turn back the infection rate. In Ethiopia, the rates of infection continue to rise since the identification of the first AIDS case in 1986. More than 1.5 million out of 70 million Ethiopians have AIDS, although the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat in Addis Ababa believes the number is much greater.

Government efforts are not enough, Abune Epiphanos said. “The government helps with awareness campaigns and basic counseling. But this is not enough, and promises about administering anti-retroviral drugs have not been kept.

“In my diocese,” the archbishop continued, “it is hard to know how many people have died from AIDS. It is very secretive in our culture. But the infection rate continues to climb and there are no real explanations.”

Of the country’s 5 million orphans, 1.2 million have been orphaned by AIDS. Orphans like Mehret.

Abune Epiphanos wants to help as many of these young orphans as he can. “Over the years, I’ve seen more and more orphans living and begging on the streets. If these children lived together, it would give them a better chance than the streets.”

Caring for Ethiopia’s 5 million orphans costs $115 million a month, but the country’s annual health budget is only $140 million, the Associated Press reported last December.

Increasingly, the government is relying on international, religious and nongovernmental agencies for help, agencies such as CNEWA, which supports 46 child care facilities in Ethiopia, including Abune Epiphanos’s orphanage in Ambo.

“We can’t afford to look after every orphan,” said Dr. Bulti Gutemi, who heads the government’s adoption authority.

Neither can Abune Epiphanos. But he does what he can.

A fence, which keeps the hyenas at bay, surrounds the orphanage, which has four rooms – two for classes, one for sleeping and one that serves as a dining room and kitchen. There is no bathroom; the boys, who are between the ages of 8 and 12, “rough it” outdoors. There is an outdoor faucet.

Deacon Girme Mekele, the 32-year-old headmaster, explained the curriculum, which seems rudimentary by Western standards but is an improvement when compared to the education offered by most Ethiopian schools.

“This is a four-year program,” he said. “The boys are taught to read, write and do math – the same type of education they would get at a state school.”

The orphans also receive religious instruction. “This is our main emphasis,” Deacon Mekele said. “From here we hope they will go on to the seminary and, eventually after ordination, they will return to their villages as priests.”

This seems self-serving, but the orphanage serves two purposes. It helps get orphaned boys off the streets until they are no longer minors and, for those who wish to serve as priests or monks, it also helps replenish the dwindling ranks of clergy.

This process began when a Marxist colonel, Mengistu Haile Mariam, overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and revoked the privileges of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Since Mengistu’s government collapsed in 1991, church-state relations have improved. But Islam, encouraged by the funding of schools, clinics and mosques by Saudi charities, is on the ascendancy in the country. (About half of the population is Christian, mostly Orthodox; the other half is Muslim.)

The boys adhere to a strict schedule, waking at 4 a.m., attending classes throughout the day, community prayer and work in the fields, where they grow tef, an indigenous grain, and vegetables. Of course there is time for play. The boys, aware of the alternatives, seem to enjoy the life.

“My parents were very sick before they died,” said Kasahun, who is 12. “I was left to live with my brother and sister. A priest brought me here. If possible, I too will become a priest when I grow up.”

Abune Epiphanos hopes to expand his orphanage. “There are different paths to becoming a priest or monk,” he said. “Some go from monastery to monastery, learning informally from the elders. Others attend a monastic school. And there are some boys who are taught by their village priest, evaluated by the local bishop and are then ordained.

“It all depends on the person’s abilities. That’s what I’m trying to do with these boys, provide them with the means for fulfilling lives.”

Sean Sprague traveled throughout Ethiopia last November on assignment for ONE.

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