Disabled in Tanzania Draw Religions Together

UK-based Charity Seen as Prism for Global Dynamic

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, JAN. 26, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Kakuru, age 22, greets you with a beaming smile as you enter his small mud hut in the remote Kagera hills of northwestern Tanzania.

Suffering from muscular dystrophy and unable to move his legs or arms, he remains seated on a dusty mat listening to the radio, just as he has done for almost the entire past seven years.

To add to the torment of the forced imprisonment caused by his terminal disease, Kakuru is also an orphan: His father died of AIDS, his mother committed suicide, and he had to cope with the loss of his twin brother. His uncle shares the hut, looking after him as best he can.

Kakuru’s case is not an unfamiliar one here. An estimated 15 million people suffer with disabilities across Africa, most of them children. Genetic predispositions often go untreated due to poor medical facilities; low nutritional levels cause or exacerbate disability; and many face a variety of external dangers. These include snake bites, attacks by wild animals, a high number of traffic accidents caused by poorly maintained roads and vehicles (often these result in amputations), and malaria (leading to cerebral palsy).

The prevalence of disease and especially AIDS has also left many of these children orphaned. And without adequate special-needs schooling nor the means to reach classes, they lack access to education. Only 2% of Africa’s disabled ever find employment; the rest depend on begging. The disabled also continue to be stigmatized in Africa, leading to abuse and abandonment. Albino children face even harder trials in East Africa where they have been persecuted, killed or dismembered based on a witchcraft-related belief that their body parts transmit magical powers.

Yet the disabled and vulnerable children in this particular region — a vast area the size of Wales — are blessed with the help of an array of faith-based action groups run by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, a Muslim non-governmental organization, and a Tanzanian government committed to upholding the rights of children. All of them have mobilized in an extraordinary and unique way, joining forces and pooling resources to support and transform the lives of those who arguably belong to the world’s most vulnerable group after the unborn. And by doing so, these action groups offer a powerful witness in defending human dignity through interdenominational and interfaith collaboration on a scale probably not seen anywhere else in the world.

Rather fittingly, I had travelled to this region close to the Rwanda border during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and just ahead of the World Day of the Sick on Feb. 11. I was invited by Matthew McIlvenna, a British Catholic and old university friend, who is a founding director of a U.K.-registered charity called Friends of the Children of Tanzania (FoCT). Since its creation in 2007, the organization has helped forge this network of faith-based support by aiding them with financial assistance and capacity building (helping locals to help themselves).

«We have a very focused mandate and almost a self-targeting one,» McIlvenna explains. «Often many programs in Africa struggle with targeting: How do you target the people you intend to help? But with people with disabilities, it’s almost self-targeting because you know by definition who they are.» He stresses that each client must contribute something toward costs of treatment to avoid total dependency. «Sometimes it will involve selling one chicken to pay for the bus fare to get to the hospital, and then FoCT will pay for the return bus fare and help pay for some maize and beans to feed their family while they’re in hospital for two weeks undergoing treatment.»

An expert in humanitarian assistance, having worked for many years for the U.N. World Food Programme, McIlvenna says the origins of FoCT grew out of the Rwanda genocide of the mid-1990s when the region hosted over a million Rwandan refugees. He and other U.N. staff were sent there to help build schools, camps and deliver food. But once the crisis was over and the humanitarian agencies left, McIlvenna noticed «an enormous vacuum» and a «huge need» in terms of dealing with disability. Being a very remote area, Kagera lacked the social, medical, and community services more commonly found elsewhere.

His personal faith then motivated him to start the charity. «As a Catholic and a Christian it’s demanded of us to promote the rights of the vulnerable, to seek their protection based on the fact that we’re all born in the image and likeness of God,» he explains.

But interestingly he was introduced to this work by a local Muslim philanthropist called Raza Fazal whose Bukoba-based non-governmental organization «Izaas» has helped feed, educate, shelter and care for countless orphans and people with disabilities for decades.

Over the course of my week in Tanzania, we visited a number of these FoCT partners, all of which depend on collaboration with Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran or Muslim programs that will refer clients to one another depending on their needs.

As well as Izaas, these include Kagondo hospital, run by the Catholic Diocese of Bukoba, which has become the center for excellence in the Lake Victoria region in the field of prosthetics, orthopaedic surgery, and amputation prevention; Mugeza, a government-run school for children with disabilities, which is suffering from overcrowding and lack of resources (it’s the only school of its kind in northern Tanzania); St. Nicholas Children’s Home, a newly established refuge for abandoned and disabled children heroically run by a former Franciscan sister from Germany, Stefanie Köster; and a Lutheran center catering to 64 street children, run by a tireless Tanzanian Lutheran nun, Sister Adventina.

In Karagwe, close to the Rwandan border, is the Anglican Community Based Rehabilitation Programme — a large operation founded by Bridget Hathaway, an Anglican from England, and run by a dynamic, well trained and truly ecumenical local staff made up of a Catholic, a Lutheran, a Seventh Day Adventist and an Anglican Canon as manager. (Thanks to their collaboration with FoCT, they were able to provide 22-year-old Kakuru with a wheelchair, mattress and a much appreciated recent trip to Bukoba). The program reaches out to distant, surrounding villages through mobile clinics, treating the disabled, buying equipment, raising awareness, and providing legal protection.

Each of these groups have their own specializations and comparative advantage, thereby complimenting the work of the rest. Yet despite these projects reaching out to thousands of clients, they’re still only scratching the surface. «We’re helping just 10% of the need here,» says McIlvenna, «but with extra funding we can start to make a dent in the remaining 90%.»

Much of the fruitful collaboration currently taking place owes itself to Tanzania’s special historical context. The country’s first president, Julius Nyerere, was a devout Catholic who founded the newly independent nation on the principle of «Umoja,» or national unity. «He forged a real partnership and cohesion among the faith groups of Tanzania,» says McIlvenna, «so the country has never been plagued by the religious strife that characterizes other parts of the African continent and other parts of the world.» But he adds that in this case, it’s the common fight for human dignity in a faith-based context that is also a powerful unifying force.

Raza Fazal’s role in this collaborative witness is particularly interesting. His father, Abdullah, was a close friend and supporter of Nyerere (although a Muslim, he aided Nyerere’s favorite religious order, the Poor Clares, and even paid for Nyerere’s ticket to New York so he could appeal for Tanzania’s independence at the United Nations).

For Fazal, the secret to good Catholic-Muslim relations is: «Keep your churches open for the Muslims and we will keep our mosques open for you.» He adds that he remembered the Aga
Khan asking his father the same question in 1954, to which his father replied: «Schools and hospitals — they are the best way to make us work together.»

Looking to the future, McIlvenna is hopeful that the ecumenical and interfaith collaboration will strengthen further still. Already Theresian sisters in Kayanga, a new diocese in Karagwe, have started work on a new special-needs school to take the pressure off Mugeza. The project, headed by Tanzanian Theresian nun Sister Godliva, will involve collaboration with the government, the Anglican program and Kagondo hospital.

The extent of collaborative endeavors in this little known region of Tanzania is a timely witness to what can be achieved at a time when interreligious strife threatens parts of the world, most recently in Nigeria. «This is a little crucible of a larger, global dynamic,» says McIlvenna, «and FoCT is a prism through which we can see this global dynamic.»

It is also witness to how much the pursuit of common goals in protecting the dignity of the human person — a key humanitarian principle on which every major faith can agree — can be a catalyst for transforming the lives of some of society’s most vulnerable people.

«As Lutherans, Muslims, Catholics we divide ourselves,» Sister Godliva says poignantly, «but in helping the neediest for God, we are one.»

More details on FoCT can be found at www.foct.org.uk

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Edward Pentin is a freelance journalist based in Rome and communications director for the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (Institute for Human Dignity). He can be reached at epentin@zenit.org

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