Making A New Kind of Difference
June 25, 2008, DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania —By David Snyder
To see him sitting quietly behind his computer, you wouldn't guess that much of Dr. Hemmed Lukonge's life has been filled with disease, displacement, HIV and AIDS. But Lukonge has seen more than most.
As a senior project officer for Catholic Relief Services in Tanzania, Lukonge oversees much of CRS' orphans and vulnerable children programming. Back in 2005, he left behind the clinical work he had done for 11 years—first caring for Rwandan and Burundian refugees in his native Tanzania for international medical agencies, then working with projects aimed at curbing the deadly effects of malaria. Today, he coordinates CRS' efforts to assist nearly 35,000 children made vulnerable by the effects of the AIDS pandemic in the country.
"I had an interest in public health issues," Lukonge says of his early years of medical practice. "And I was working primarily in children's care and treatment."
'Room to Grow and to Learn'
When Lukonge saw a CRS ad in the local newspaper for a health professional, he sent in his resume.
"They didn't mention anything about being a Catholic agency in the ad. It just said 'CRS,' " Lukonge explains, laughing at the memory. "When I came for the interview, I found out this is a Christian organization. I am a Muslim, so I didn't know if they would hire me."
CRS did hire him, but for a different role. A new position was opening up: coordinating the orphans and vulnerable children program. The country representative saw Lukonge's experience as a clinician with a wealth of experience in community health programs, including integrated management of childhood illnesses, and thought he would be perfect.
Though Lukonge wasn't certain of what exactly his new job might entail, his reasons for accepting the position were simple. "I joined because I wanted to explore more," he says. "I always want to learn new things and innovations, and I thought there was a lot of room to grow and to learn."
Since then, Lukonge has had plenty of opportunity to do both. The size and scale of the program has skyrocketed in Tanzania over the last two years due to increases in funding from the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Launched in 2004, the PEPFAR initiative is aiming to care for 10 million people living with and affected by HIV and provide antiretroviral treatment to 2 million people in 15 African, Asian and Caribbean countries.
Strengthening the Safety Net
All of the orphans and vulnerable children Lukonge works with are affected by HIV. A number are also infected with HIV, as the virus can be passed on by mothers to their children during childbirth without preventive care. Caregivers left behind to care for orphaned children are also often infected, straining the thin safety net that many of the children depend on for their care.
For this reason, CRS' PEPFAR projects for children affected by HIV also provide other essential assistance, including educational support and vocational training, food and agriculture assistance, protection activities, shelter assistance and counseling. Children also gain access to free medical care whether or not they are living with HIV. Mostly, however, Lukonge says the main impact of the program has been the ability to link orphans and children in need with the wider network of care that exists within Tanzania.
As of May 2008, just over 1,000 of the 35,000 children participating in CRS' PEPFAR-funded projects had been placed on antiretroviral medications. These children now have a chance to prolong their lives indefinitely on a continent where only a small percentage of the millions of people living with HIV have access to the medications.
"My medical knowledge has helped identify those HIV-positive children and link them to the antiretroviral program," Lukonge says. "With my background, I have been able to help put more kids on these lifesaving drugs."
Looking back at the last two years of his work with CRS, Lukonge hesitates only briefly when asked about his motivation for the work that he does.
"The most satisfaction I get is that we are thinking, we are testing strategies," Lukonge says. "And when we see the benefits of our work in the communities we are serving, I am proud of our efforts."
David Snyder is a photojournalist who has traveled to more than 30 countries with CRS. Most recently, David visited country programs in southern and eastern Africa, including Tanzania.