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Mother-daughter team helps Kenya village build a future

In 10 years, with little international aid, a poor farming community has risen from the depths of the AIDS epidemic.

October 12, 2008|Barbara Borst | Associated Press

RABUOR, KENYA — Loyce Mbewa-Ongudi was late. Family and friends milled around her parents' house in the green hills overlooking Lake Victoria, waiting for the daughter from America to return home.

At last the taxi bounced over the ruts and made a sharp turn into the compound of small brick and stucco houses. Loyce sprang out to a shower of greetings in the Luo language, hugs, helping hands for 12 enormous suitcases crammed with anti-AIDS medicines, asthma inhalers, storybooks, pencils and sharpeners, used eyeglasses.

The supplies were for the Rabuor Village Project, which Loyce runs. In the crowd, she sought the woman who started it all: her mother, Rosemell Ongudi.

This is the story of a village, spurred by two extraordinary women, rising from the depths of the AIDS epidemic to build a future for itself. In 10 years, with hardly any international aid, this poor farming community has founded a nursery school and feeding program, a pharmacy, a youth group and income-generating projects. The work touches more than 10,000 people in 10 villages and keeps growing.

But it's not just a list of projects; it's a change of heart. Rabuor's work embodies what experts consider the most effective approach to development: "community-owned" programs in which residents, not just donors, set the priorities, and change comes from the bottom up.

Commissioner Godfrey Kigochi, senior Kenya government official for the Kisumu West district, says he wishes he had a project like this in every village. Organizations that give money or lend expertise to the Rabuor project -- Slum Doctors, Lift Kids, Pangea, Architects Without Borders -- say the group is unique for its pragmatism and deep community roots. The Rev. Charles Onginjo, who blessed the work from the start, is helping other congregations launch similar projects.

Kenya's AIDS rate has fallen since the 1990s, and far more people today are willing to go for testing and treatment. Still, about 14% of the district's 160,000 people are infected, double the national rate.

The Rabuor project is about much more than AIDS prevention: It's about people learning that they can improve their lives. Loyce, 52, bounds into a meeting and revs up the team, with the energy of the field hockey and track competitor she used to be.

Rosemell, 69, tall and sturdy, brings a quiet wisdom. She speaks in a girlish voice, and her laugh rumbles soft and low.

She began back in the 1990s, when AIDS was ripping the heart out of almost every family here. Yet people barely whispered about it because prostitutes and truckers were the early conduits of the disease.

Rosemell didn't talk about AIDS either, but she talked about the orphans it left behind. She recalls that the children were "very bad in their bodies" because they didn't have enough food.

She grew up without a father, helped raise her siblings, sometimes went without food herself. In 1998 she began giving the kids food from her own home. Then she turned to a women's group she had founded to see "what we can do for these children, now we are their mothers and fathers."

Worried about the orphans, Rosemell cut short a visit in 2001 to Loyce in Seattle. On her return, she asked Onginjo if the women could use a room at the Rabuor church. She asked her husband, Wesley, a retired school headmaster, for money to hire a teacher. The women launched a nursery school.

When Loyce visited her childhood home months later, she saw how much had changed.

"I had a first-class community and village to bring me up. Everything a child could dream of, I had it," she says. "People rarely died. The first one I knew, I was 18."

But now so many were dying that villagers spent much of their time and resources on funerals. Loyce, who once worked for the World Bank and the Gates Foundation, looked for a way to help.

She sent her salary. She asked people in her Seattle church to contribute. Then she and supporters founded Rabuor Village Project in 2003 as a nonprofit under U.S. law. The money trickling in helped buy land, build classrooms and hire teachers.

AIDS hit the Ongudi family directly. Rosemell and Wesley -- parents of 10, grandparents of 19 -- buried two of their children, in 2004 and 2007, AIDS victims who each left behind a healthy child. Another of their children is HIV-positive but taking AIDS drugs.

But people were not ready to discuss AIDS; their focus was on feeding their families.

The first step was to increase crops, starting with corn. Next came projects to earn income, keep children in school and train adults in agriculture, nutrition, vocational skills. Conditions still remain basic: no running water, no electrical service, no cars, but a few cellphones.

Loyce, who calls her mother the Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. of Rabuor, credits Rosemell's political savvy for finding patrons. Onginjo says the church's backing shields the work from corrupt politicians. Rosemell's son Kennedy helps navigate bureaucracy and politics as assistant chief.

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