EAST LANSING, Mich. — Alan has an almost cherubic face, but like any
13-year-old, there is an impish twinkle in his eyes. His throaty
laughter and smile are nearly constant as he sits eating a Cobb salad.
It is difficult to tell that he has endured more tragedy in his short
life than most Americans can dream of.
Alan is an orphan of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that is ravaging Africa.
In his native Uganda, he is considered an orphan because his father
died. On top of dealing with the stigma of having a father who died as
a result of HIV, he is also suffering from cerebral palsy, which leaves
him unable to walk, and has the tendons in his right hand strung so
tight he can’t use his thumb.
He is in Michigan as a guest of his school, the Nyaka AIDS Orphan School,
to receive surgery in hopes of gaining some use of his right hand. The
surgery is only the latest benefit the teenager is getting from his
five-year relationship with the school in Uganda.
Nyaka, which operates out of Michigan, has been offering primary
education to “the most at-need” youth since 2001 and was authorized by
the Ugandan government in 2003. The average class size is 32, whereas
the average class size for public schools in Uganda is 60 to 120. The
students get hours of instruction in math, English and other basic
subjects, as well as free breakfast and lunch.
“Most of our students are orphans from HIV and AIDS,” said Chris Singer, communications manager for Nyaka.
“A lot of our kids live with host families we have identified or
grandmothers or family. We have almost 300 children and only five are
The school focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention efforts. The school’s choir goes out and sings and puts on skits about HIV.
“The skits are amazing because they are so in your face. It’s very
different than here,” Singer said. “There they have billboards all over
the place. …
“There are lot of men who prey on young girls, and they call them
sugar daddies,” said Singer. “And they have billboards that say ‘No
The messaging from the youth and the government is working. New
cases are declining, Singer said, noting that the HIV infection rate
has gone from 18 percent to seven percent. He said this is because the
government uses so-called ABC’s education on HIV prevention —
Abstinence, Be Faithful and Condoms.
Although it is working, the program limits the country’s access to
U.S. funds because it is not abstinence-only education. Nonetheless the
program’s success has made Uganda a model for fighting HIV, even
without U.S. resources.
“This disease is a litmus test for our society, and we are failing,” Singer said.
He says he sees a different response for his work in Africa than he
does for his service as a board member on the Lansing Area AIDS Network
“I work for this school in Uganda and I get all this attention about how great it is. Why doesn’t LAAN get that attention?”
Stigma around the disease remains as dangerous in Africa as it does in the U.S., Singer added.
Alan said before he began attending Nyaka, he was teased for being
in a wheelchair and for being an AIDS orphan, but not anymore. Going to
school with others impacted by HIV has helped him connect.
Singer said he thinks it is time for American HIV/AIDS service organizations to work together.
“I think we can all work together for the same thing,” Singer said.
“What bothers me is that there is stigma surrounding it from all
sides. We all want the same thing. I don’t think the kids there are any
more deserving than the kids here … It is the biggest global injustice
going around. No matter what side you are on, if you fit in one of
those areas you are suffering from the injustice. We still have a large
population infected here and nobody cares.”