Ambo’s Hope

An Ethiopian archbishop shelters boys orphaned by AIDS

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Four years ago, when Mehret was 9, his father died. Mehret’s mother did not last much longer. Both died of AIDS, a disease that is devastating Africa and Mehret’s country of Ethiopia. Mehret’s father, a truck driver, started to get sick about seven years ago. Given the long period between contraction of H.I.V. and the appearance of AIDS symptoms – 10 years is not abnormal – there is no telling when he became infected. Most likely, it was at a truck stop, where prostitution is rampant.

For years, Mehret, who had to drop out of school, and his older brother nursed their sick parents. When they succumbed to the disease, Mehret’s brother struck out on his own, making a meager living as a day laborer. Still a boy, Mehret’s prospects for earning a living were dim. He resorted to begging, loitering on the streets of his hometown of Ambo, a provincial town west of the capital city of Addis Ababa in central Ethiopia.

About two years ago, a priest approached Mehret. They chatted, and the priest was struck by Mehret’s intelligence. Thinking he might be able to help, the priest brought Mehret to a simple single-story building on a nearby hill, home to 20 boys. The orphanage was built three years ago by the Orthodox Archbishop of Western Shoa, Abune Epiphanos, and doubles as a minor seminary. Mehret has lived there for two years.

Though the origins of the disease remain a mystery, most experts believe AIDS began in Africa. Incurable, AIDS has killed millions – almost no patch of inhabitable land has been spared. But while expensive antiviral drugs and public awareness campaigns have helped stem the tide in the West, AIDS continues to spread quickly in the world’s underdeveloped regions.

Africa has been hardest hit. About 34.3 million people in the world have AIDS – 24.5 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa, according to UNAIDS, a task force of the United Nations. About 13.2 million children have been orphaned by the disease, 12.1 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa, only Senegal and Uganda have managed to turn back the infection rate. In Ethiopia, the rates of infection continue to rise since the identification of the first AIDS case in 1986. More than 1.5 million out of 70 million Ethiopians have AIDS, although the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat in Addis Ababa believes the number is much greater.

Government efforts are not enough, Abune Epiphanos said. “The government helps with awareness campaigns and basic counseling. But this is not enough, and promises about administering anti-retroviral drugs have not been kept.

“In my diocese,” the archbishop continued, “it is hard to know how many people have died from AIDS. It is very secretive in our culture. But the infection rate continues to climb and there are no real explanations.”

Of the country’s 5 million orphans, 1.2 million have been orphaned by AIDS. Orphans like Mehret.

Abune Epiphanos wants to help as many of these young orphans as he can. “Over the years, I’ve seen more and more orphans living and begging on the streets. If these children lived together, it would give them a better chance than the streets.”

Caring for Ethiopia’s 5 million orphans costs $115 million a month, but the country’s annual health budget is only $140 million, the Associated Press reported last December.

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