Evelyn: A remarkable story.
The bright early morning African sun streams through the empty window of Evelyn’s tiny one –room hut, illuminating in relief on her face a rare moment of reflection.
Proud, dignified, determined and, by her own account, happy, there is no trace in either her gaze or demeanour of the struggle daily life presents her just to keep going – and not just herself but all the many who have long depended upon and been nurtured and cared for by her. No sense of the wicked misfortune others dealt the same hand might see. No notion of the sacrifices. No self pity.
Her tiny, block-walled home is neat and tidy, as she herself is scrupulously in her dress.
Evelyn it seems would be the last to claim her circumstances any more remarkable than any other financially impoverished person excluded from opportunity in one of the poorest countries on the world’s poorest continent.* You strongly sense and quickly discover she would never expect, much less ask for, special consideration for her circumstances. And she would be unlikely to tell you her remarkable story, an inspirational tale of generosity beyond expectation, of compassion, humanity and resilience in the face of cruel luck and fearsome odds. Unless you asked. In which case she is rightly proud and happy to tell you about her life.
Evelyn Varisanga is aged 52. She has one now grown up son, aged 37, and 5 grandchildren. Her husband left her before their son, Ibrahim, was born in 1981.
And Evelyn, she tells you calmly, has been HIV-positive since 2004. She contracted the virus that causes AIDS unknowingly through an open wound while nursing her daughter-in-law, Blandina, who died of the disease. Misfortune would not cease with the passing of Blandina and equally was nothing new to the family.
Three years earlier Evelyn’s sister, Zahara, gave birth to a son, Akili, who was born blind in one eye. Akili’s father died when he was an infant, and when at the age of six his mum Zahara, Evelyn’s sister became sick and died, Evelyn took in and raised Akili as her own. Her life since has been devoted to helping Akili overcome his disability and make his way in life, as well as, now, caring also for and raising two of her grandsons. Their father, Ibrahim, can find only sporadic, low-paid casual work and cannot provide for them.
Evelyn was able to find help for Akili from the charity SOS Children’s Villages International, which set up in Arusha in 2000 and cares especially for HIV/AIDS-affected children and mothers. Despite his impediment Akili developed a love of and talent for football, and more help arrived after Emanuel Saakai set up Lengo in Ngaramtoni near Arusha in early 2013. Sponsors, attracted by Akili’s talent, confidence and maturity, arranged for him to travel to Europe for treatment and eventual replacement of his sightless eye with a prosthetic one.
With his aunt Evelyn behind him and the support of the Lengo community, Akili has gone from strength to strength, but now, at 17, faces an impasse. His dream is to study to become a lawyer but he needs to study more and gain better grades in a country where study and academic qualifications are an expensive privilege. In the meantime, SOS has helped by paying his fees for business college – but food, transport and lodging are not included.
Evelyn, working hand to mouth and trusting to providence, sold 25 of her 30 chickens – her main source of income through selling their eggs – to get Akili through his first year of college, but now has almost no resources left and little means of raising funds. SOS is doing all it can by agreeing to pay the tuition fees, but if Akili cannot get to and from the college in Mwanza, 10 hours away by road near Lake Victoria, and sustain himself and pay for text books and stationery, he risks falling by the wayside. His expenses amount to around US$200 (around A$256) per year, for everything. Although he searches during time off and term breaks, without contacts even casual work is almost impossible to find in the ailing Tanzanian economy.
Evelyn looks and feels healthy but admits her illness has slowed her and reduced her ability to help those she loves. Digging and farming, heavy physical work, is difficult now. When there is nothing left to pay for nutritious food her health suffers and she loses energy. Government she said has economised on funding her treatment with antiretrovirals on monthly hospital visits, and the immune system antimicrobial, Ciprin, and X-rays are beyond reach.
Undeterred, in measured Swahili, Evelyn says she has faith and will keep fighting, to remain active and productive. She dreams of running a small shop or stall, something she could physically manage, but needs capital she does not have for that.
If enabled to replenish her small stock of chickens, Evelyn would have the means to help Akili and others. She has the heart and determination. In Arusha a hen costs around A$5 only (a rooster about A$10). The cost of a cup of coffee in Melbourne or New York. The price of survival in Africa.
Written by Dominic Biggs
*Tanzania is on the United Nation’s list of the world’s Least Developed – or poorest – countries, more than two thirds of which are in Africa.
**We are pleased to say that we have received full sponsorship for Evelyn to replenish her chickens and roosters and start her own small business. If you are interested in sponsoring a family like Evelyn's through our Family Sponsorship program please get in touch.