Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: email@example.com
Representative of AIDS Orphan Support NGO
Do you know about “AIDS orphan“? We had little idea of that, but we learned that its definition is “a child under 18 who lost his/her parent(s) to AIDS”. Today we introduce you to Ruiko Monda, a woman like a caring sister for them.
According to her organization called “AIDS Orphan Support NGO PLAS (Positive Living through AIDS orphan Support)”, many AIDS orphans are adopted by their grandparents. But they cannot work due to old age, so some of them are forced to work or discriminated against by grandparents or other family members. Therefore getting an education becomes more difficult for them. We knew that there were many AIDS victims in Africa. But the embarrassing thing is that we’ve never thought of their children.
We met her for the first time in September 2012, at her event which discussed with Hayato Ikeda, a Japanese popular blogger, about “Social Change and Social Media” (@Samurai Startup Island). We learned PLAS has used social media like Facebook to tell people about AIDS orphans that are strange to most of us. They’ve incorporated Ikeda’s advice in their social media activities and continually strived to disseminate information on AIDS orphans so far.
But as it is now, there are said to be as many as 16.6 milion AIDS orphans all over the world, so it’s not a small problem. Rather it’s a really big issue, but to Japanese, it’s what’s happening in a distant world. So we heard from her how she got to deal in such a reality.
Photos by AIDS Orphan Support NGO PLAS
Why is banana so cheap?
I directed my attention to overseas when I was a sophomore or junior in college. At that time, I wanted to be a counselor because I majored in psychology. But I took peace and conflict studies, which was one of the liberal arts.
One day I learned the fact that our food items and clothes are made in developing countries. Cheap everyday goods around us are made by children who are working at low pay – that was very shocking to me. So I got interested in international cooperation.
A professor told us an example – Philippine bananas. Bananas used to be a luxury food when my parents were young. But now you can get a bunch of bananas at about ¥100 (approx US$1). That’s because of cheap labor or child labor.
Before that, I had no interest in overseas stuff. I didn’t even have a passport so I’d never been to foreign countries. But right after the class, I searched by keywords such as “Philippines””volunteer”.
Kids at the Smokey Mountain
I searched for volunteer groups specializing in the Philippines and the name of “ACTION” was displayed on the top of the page. ACTION is a Japan-based NGO which supports orphans and street children in the Philippines. I stayed at an orphanage in a rural area in the Philippines with other participants for 3 weeks. We helped to construct their kindergarden and played with kids.
I witnessed the present situation of poor children in Philippines there. There were many shacks near a waste pile called “Smokey Mountain” and the section fell into slum wino. Kids were picking up plastic goods and cans and selling them to residents. I was really shocked by that.
But on the other hand, I encountered something good that I didn’t expect at all. Before I went to the Philippines, I thought that orphans might be depressed and wouldn’t be open up to me. However they were very cheerful. They were very adorable so I wanted to see them again.
I got interested in the developing countries much more because I had such a rich and rewarding experience in my first life overseas. So I read many books about international relations. I was especially impressed by Makoto Katsumata‘s books and articles about African studies, therefore I went on to the graduate school of Meiji Gakuin University where Mr. Katsumata was teaching at.
Meeting with AIDS orphans
Around the end of the first year of the graduate school, I decided to go to Africa because I was inspired by Mr. Katsumata’s lectures. I chose Kenya because people can understand English and assignments/length of time for volunteering were desirable for me. So I went there and worked for a Kenyan-run NGO as a volunteer for a month.
I mainly helped a hospital. I separated their medicine into valid ones and expired ones and I went to visit homes for medical care with a doctor as her assistant.
The place of my assignments was a small island and there was only one doctor. But some residents denied her physical exams because they didn’t trust Western medicine. Instead, they wanted to cure their diseases or injuries by magic or black magic.
But there were many HIV-positive people. However they didn’t want to receive her medical care or some of them didn’t come outside. I asked her the reasons and she told me that they would be ostracized if people knew that they were HIV-positive. Also some were afraid of knowing that they would be HIV carriers or they couldn’t accept that they were infected patients. That means everybody was afraid of being discriminated against.
I saw those people and came back to Japan with a lingering feeling of discomfort. I couldn’t get AIDS issues off of my mind, so I flew to Kenya again about six months later. I went to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and visited AIDS-related facilities and orphanages with NGO staff. Then I met AIDS orphans for the first time ever in my life.
I met many AIDS orphans in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. I originally like children and many organizations had already supported HIV-positive adults. On the other hand, aid for children who became orphans after their parent(s) died was not enough.
After I returned, I met a man named Takuma Kato. I was sent to Kenya by the Japan-based international volunteer NGO called “NICE” and he was also sent to Africa by NICE and saw the situation regarding AIDS. So he proposed a discussion on AIDS to those who were registered on the NGO. And guys who were involved in AIDS issues in different countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Malaysia joined the discussion. Everybody considered HIV and AIDS orphans and seven of them including me decided to act for them.
Especially in Uganda, where Kato was involved in the activities, he was told that they needed support by an elementary school which accepted AIDS orphans. So we thought of supporting that school. We decided to organize a group and start with a school support in Uganda.
Then we built PLAS in December 2005, 3 months after I met AIDS orphans for the first time. At that time I was a secretary-general and our representative was Kato (Monda was inaugurated as its representative in 2009).
School renovation – our first assignment
We thought of sending money to the elementary school in Uganda as a means of support. Their specialty was music education and we heard there were many kids who could play instruments so we brought up the idea of selling their CDs and sending those sales to them.
But actually it was not so good which means it was beyond selling. They said it was excellent… If the difference in value and poor communication remained between us and them like this, we wouldn’t be able to give enough aid to them. We thought that and so decided to visit the elementary school. That was January 2006, a month after the birth of PLAS.
We sent a few staff members there first for the field survey and we learned what they really needed was not money. They needed an environmental improvement. Once it rained, water leaked into the school from its ceilings, floors and chinks in walls so both we and school agreed on the renovation of its building in order for the students to study comfortably.
After that, we sent some volunteer staff members to teach teachers accounting basis and get quotes of renovation cost from carpenters. Then the Ugandan school renovation project started in summer 2006.
We were suffering from a shortage of manpower and money. Thanks to NICE, the Japan-based international NGO, about 20 volunteers came to Uganda. We made them pay to join the project and we took out money from them to help pay for the material costs. Ugandan volunteers also helped us and we completed the renovation three months after the groundbreaking.
It sounds like the project went smoothly, but a complicated affair occurred.
The school and parents were happy with renovation school which accepted AIDS orphans. But on the other hand, there were people who didn’t want us to do that. We were threatened by them and told that they would force us to take all the stuff away if we didn’t stop it immediately. To make matters worse, carpenters we hired demanded a stiff fee from us.
But they saw what we were doing during the project – we stayed at another local elementary school and slept on its muddy floors; we made a fire and cooked meals. Also schools talked to those against the project over and over again. Finally opponents softened.
Also carpenters’ attitudes changed. Towards the end of the project, a head carpenter said, “We don’t need daily pay from tomorrow till the end. Japanese work hard for kids including AIDS orphans and their school. So we should do our best”. Then he began to convince other young carpenters. He told them why the school was needed and asked them to work for free for the remainder of the project. His subordinates also agreed with him. They worked for free for the last 10 days.
After the project was complete, I thought, “Finally done”. I didn’t get a sense of achievement very much. I wondered if I would be able to keep working on tough things like this.
Consulting for school management
We continued our support of the school after that. It was a support for self-sustaining, so what we did for them was a kind of consulting.
We taught them account basis again in order for them to aim for sound management and becoming independent without financial help from PLAS. What we taught them was making a habit of keeping accounts and how to do it.
Also as for school management costs, we constructed systems to manage schools with tuitions from normal kids. Instead, they made it possible for AIDS orphansto learn without tuitionsand we asked them to calculate the amount of money required for management and set their school fees by taking computed amount into consideration.
Moreover we focused on its promotion in order to attract pupils’ parents enough to make them want to send their children to the school even if it would be costly. The school made a strong effort to music education so kids sang and danced very well. Therefore we proposed that they would hold a school play at a big hall in order to be able to invite neighbors. Actually many people came to see it and the school was swamped with numerous applicants. We repeated that and the number of its pupils increased from 80 to 200 and it enabled them to manage the school by themselves.
Providing independence for AIDS orphans
It took 2 and a half years for them to be independent and we didn’t pay for them very much. But there was an exception.
AIDS orphans go to the elementary school without charge, but some people who got custody of orphans left them and orphans were at a loss for what to do in front of the empty nests. In this case, we paid for their living costs and the school put orphans up in there. There were about 10 orphans who had no relatives and stayed in the school and a teacher took care of and slept with them.
Now the school can raise orphans with their own resources. We want all schools that look after orphans to become independent, like they’ll be able to come up with the finance by themselves. Because there are 1 million AIDS orphans who need support from us only in Uganda. We cannot support an elementary school for 10 years or 20 years.
As such, we devote some of the resources to our education campaign for AIDS prevention. We’ve talked to 10,000 adults about the importance of AIDS prevention. The reason is simple; If you prevent AIDS, the number of AIDS orphans won’t increase. Also this campaign is an activity for people to understand AIDS orphans correctly. However it’s difficult for us to resolve their misunderstandings and prejudices, so we need to work on this issue steadily and over time.
We’ll start the new project in Uganda soon; it’s a chicken farming done with a local self-help group of HIV-positive patients and divert profits into supporting AIDS orphans and we will have to teach the method of bird farming and enrich the area itself in order to build an economic base for not leaving AIDS orphans behind.
Our goal is not a “supporting AIDS orphans”, it’s to “encourage orphans and their protectors independence”. Then we want to produce a system for them to do what we are doing now by themselves in the future. That’s our goal.
Charity party celebrating World AIDS Day 2012 (November 25, 2012)
What is your ideal world?
The world where AIDS orphans and normal kids live together. That’s the best one I think.
Some orphans put themselves down while their parent(s) die and are stigmatized by many people. “I wish I was never born” “My parent(s) died and bad things happened because I’ve been a very bad boy. I’m no longer worth living”. Many AIDS orphans are harassed by guilt.
But I want them to have confidence that they are worthy people so they would be able to contribute to society.
All people who live in this world are valuable, I think so I hope all people or all children would become confident like that and I want to create a society where each of us thinks that they are valuable.
PLAS official website：ngo.plas-aids.org/en