Congo (DRC): An advent of hope

Friday, December 2, 2011

Seventy-year-old Maria Odongo is giving conflict-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of Congo a new, caring face.

Maria, a soft-spoken woman who likes to dress in bright colours would bring a smile to the face of Mary, the mother of God after whom she is named. She also bears much in common with the late Mother Teresa. She has taken care of 25 abandoned children, ten of whom have since matured and moved out, while 15 are still under her roof. Maria is now the only mother the abandoned children know.

The elderly lady lives in the town of Lubiriha, near the Ugandan border. The town has a high prevalence of HIV and has a number of children who have been orphaned by AIDS. She lives in a small mud house that was constructed next to the Lubiriha Catholic church, through the support of the World-Vision-initiated Community Care Coalition—groups organised and trained to care for vulnerable children in their communities.

Fifteen children surround her lovingly, crying for attention. The house has a single bed on which she sleeps with the youngest children, while the rest crowd onto another mattress that is placed on the floor. But the presence of so many needs does not dampen Maria’s spirits.

“This is an opportunity to serve these children who have no hope in life as most are either orphans or were abandoned by their mothers and fathers,” she says.

She says she initially took care of AIDS patients who were parents within the area, but was compelled to switch to caring for young children after one couple died, leaving children without anyone to care for them.

“I was moved with compassion at the sorry sight of AIDS orphans, who were vulnerable to harsh life after their parents, whom I was taking care of died,” she says. As word of her benevolence went round, other villagers brought abandoned children to Mary, beseeching her to extend the same benevolence. Mary did, assisted by the community and the church, which would occasionally provide basic necessities such as food for the abandoned children.

“I am the mother and father of these children. I appreciate that God has granted me an opportunity of serving them,” she says.

Maria, whose husband was killed in 1979 by the army of former Uganda dictator, Idi Amin, has four surviving children from a family of 10. She says they are grown up and married and live in Kenya with their families, but hardly ever come to see her.

She, however, has no regrets as the abandoned children are her family whom she loves. She says she is happy to toil to support the children. She recently bought a small piece of land to farm so the children will have food.

The fifteen children she is currently looking after range from a 20-year-old to most-recently-born Gloria, who is 8 months old. Apart from the 20 year old who is blind, all the rest are less than 14 years old. “This is hard work, but I pay glowing tribute to God and to organisations that have supported us through the Hope Initiative, like World Vision and EPVI,” she says.

EPVI (translated as Hope for Life) was supported by World Vision to implement an HIV and AIDS project in the area. It was funded by the Dutch government through World Vision Netherlands.

The children have received food, education, uniform, shoes, books, school fees among other items, but Mary says the greatest gift they received came through World Vision’s Community Care Coalition—a mud home for shelter. “Food however remains the most crucial basic need. When we have enough, we can afford three meals in a day, but in most cases I am forced to reduce rations to save as much as possible,” she says.

She says that with each waking day, she feels much weaker, as age is fast catching up. However her greatest desire is that God identifies one of the children she has taken care of to have the heart to pick up from where she has left when her time is through.

By Michael Arunga