Agape Children’s Village, Uganda
Uganda has been hit hard by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and has the world’s highest concentration of AIDS orphans. With a population of 30.9 million, one in every eighteen Ugandans is an AIDS orphan. In 2002 there were 1.7 million AIDS orphans, out of a total of 2.4 million Ugandan orphans.
The orphan problem is coped with in different ways. There are child-headed homes where both parents have died and a child in its late teens acts as parent. Such teenagers, already traumatised through seeing their parents die, face onerous tasks like fetching water, growing food and tending sick siblings.
However, most orphans become homeless and vulnerable. They often suffer rape, child trafficking or even child sacrifice. Foster care and orphanages are urgently needed by them.
Many orphanages separate the children into dormitories by age group and feed them centrally. Similarly, many boarding schools (Ugandan secondary schools are often privately run and board pupils) help look after orphans.
But one church congregation in the Kampala suburb of Ntinda has responded in an innovative and less institutional way. In 2004 Agape Baptist Church founded Agape Children’s Village around the biblical concept of the family as the basis for nurturing children.
I had opportunity to visit the village in April and speak with pastors involved in the work. I met Rev. Julius Twongyeirwe, who said of Agape’s approach: ‘We looked to the Bible for patterns for nurturing children. There is an obligation to pass on knowledge, godly values and life skills to the following generations in a family environment.
‘Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 6:6-9: “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts … impress them on your children … talk about them”.’
Rev. Robert Aupal also explained: ‘We decided to imitate the family as much as possible, so that children have experience of a family’. Instead of segregating children by age, the children are put into a ‘family’ covering the complete age range up to 18 years, so that older children can help their ‘mother’ take care of the younger ones.
Agape Children’s Village was established jointly with the US-based charity Compassion International. Funds were allocated by Compassion to build the village, and Compassion helped find the first batch of staff and children. But today the ownership and running of the village lies with Agape.
The village is on a beautiful hill location in Bukerere, a 15 km drive along mud roads from the north-eastern edge of Kampala. This rural setting was deliberately chosen to allow children acquire skills to continue living in the villages. Ninety per cent of Uganda lives in villages.
Julius explained to me that if the children became too used to such modern comforts as running water and flush toilets they would struggle in a village where water is brought from a well and where there are pit latrines.
Agape village consists of eight houses, a primary school and chapel. Robert said, ‘We have eight families each headed by a “mother”. The “family” is a unit which cooks its own food and does things differently from other families. The mother is responsible to lead the family, teach the Scriptures and help the children with any difficulties they may have’.
The mothers are Christian women chosen by the church, mainly those whose own children have grown up. The fifteen acre village site has areas for cultivation, animal rearing and growing fruit trees. Children are taught to look after chickens and pigs, cultivate vegetables like sweet potatoes, and, later, cook. They learn to hand wash their own clothes at an early age.
I noticed how at 6.30am a teenage boy and village guard were already up feeding the chickens. An hour later other children were washing dishes for their household. That week was part of a school holiday, so a morning programme of talks was organised.
The programme covered a mixture of life skills and biblical topics and was taught by a team of ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’. I was surprised by the long attention span of the children — perhaps a result of having no electronic games, virtually no TV, and no instant messaging!
At evening mealtimes there was not enough space for all to sit round the table, so some sat on the floor to eat. The youngest toddler in the house was fed by a girl in her early teens.
Not all the children are orphans. One toddler was born to a mentally handicapped woman who could not cope with the child. The boy when found was severely malnourished, but has now been restored to full health.
Agape’s work extends beyond the children in their care. They reach out to the local community, which is mainly Catholic, Muslim and animistic. Chapel services are aimed not just at the orphans but the wider community.
Similarly with the primary school, Robert said, ‘We thought it best to set up a Christian school not only for our children but open to children in the community. When they come to school, they experience the love of Christ and we share the message of Christ with them’.
Agape apparently faces difficulties in funding some activities, with a crop failure due to this year’s drought, and is struggling to keep up-to-date with school fees.
By law, the children cannot stay at Agape village after their 18th birthday. Robert said, ‘At the moment there are 63 children. We previously had 86, and in December we resettled 23 of them’.
Agape keeps an active interest in those children that have left, especially over the first months. The early indications are that they integrate well with their new communities.