By Dulce Araújo
It was in the early 1990’s that Olinda Mugabe came to understand the impact of the AIDS epidemic on her country, Mozambique. She was already a trained nurse with long experience of working with development and family support organizations. At that time, people in Mozambique were more concerned about coping with the effects of the civil war, rather than dealing adequately with the disease. So, together with a group of AIDS patients, Olinda began an awareness campaign and set up an association called "Quiquimuca" (Wake up). Together, they engaged the media and encouraged people to react to the crisis.
That was just the first step. Olinda quickly moved on to the next challenge: the growing number of children left orphaned. She called on friends who, like her, had once considered a religious vocation, and they created a new organization named "Reencontro” (Reencounter"). Today this non-profit organization assists around 10,000 orphans of parents who died because of AIDS in the provinces of Maputo and Gaza alone. These provinces are in the south of Mozambique, where the incidence of the disease is highest: 22.9% and 24.4% respectively. The national average was 13.2% in 2017.
The meaning of “Reencontro”
“Reencontro” is located in the Mahotas district, on the southern outskirts of Maputo. It is named after Blessed Maria da Paixão, Founder of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. The creators of the "Center for Welcoming Orphaned and Vulnerable Children" were once part of this religious Congregation, and continue to collaborate closely with it.
Olinda and several of her companions had wanted to enter religious life, but for different reasons, they were unable to fulfill this dream. Everyone ended up following their own path. Franciscan spirituality and the desire to help others, continued to inspire them, however. Which is why they responded to Olinda’s call with such enthusiasm: in this way, they could channel their spirituality by serving and accompanying these orphans.
They could not have chosen a better name for the Association either: "Reencontro" means meeting one another, meeting new relatives for the orphans, meeting the mission of love, charity, and mutual assistance. They say it was a second opportunity God gave them to follow Him. Everyone contributed to helping the children with the little they had: a plate, a chair, a table, a cup of rice or sugar. 2002 saw the official recognition of the Association, and that is when it really began to grow.
Assisting orphaned children
The provinces of Maputo and Gaza are on the border with South Africa, and it is here that “Reencontro” is most active. HIVAIDS has devastated entire families. Children, some of them HIV-positive, live with their elderly grandparents, distant relatives, or even completely alone.
Organizations like USAID, the "Global Fund for Children", "Cross International", and several local traders and benefactors, assist “Reencontro” providing food, housing, education, healthcare, and clothing. They also help identify possible “godparents” to adopt orphans at a distance. The association itself ensures the orphans receive a religious education – and showers them with affection. A significant number of volunteers, women and men, contribute to this service. Olinda calls them the “eyes of Reencontro" in the community, in the domestic and natural environments in which most of children spend their days.
Signs of appreciation
“Reencontro” was founded in 1998. Its growth over the past twenty years is the best sign of the good it has achieved. Other signs of appreciation have come from both the Government and the Church in Mozambique, something that makes Olinda particularly happy. Difficulties remain, however, in terms of how the Association intends moving forward as an institution. Olinda beams with pride as she describes the many successes achieved over the years. One story concerns a young man who is now 19 years old. As Olinda tells it, he was a restless child, who suffered terribly when his parents died. He lived with his grandmother and other HIV-positive siblings. Eventually, he stopped going to school and met up with bad company. That is until “Reencontro” took him under its wing. Today he works and studies, and takes care of his grandmother and brothers. Another boy was able to graduate from college and now he is an English teacher. Many others support both themselves and their families and no longer need assistance. And every time someone from the organization gets married, their joy is shared by everyone in “Reencontro”.
The JOLUSI Project
Ever since it began, “Reencontro” has wanted to involve young orphans in the fight against AIDS. This is how the JOLUSI project was born. Over the years, more and more young people have engaged in it with enthusiasm. Alfredo Carlos Changale lost his father to AIDS. He is actively involved in the project. Every morning he gets up early to sell soft drinks and sweets in order to help his mother and brothers. Then he meets up with the other young people who are part of the JOLUSI Project.
The JOLUSI project needs to be promoted and revitalized, mostly because, despite the fear of AIDS, young people continue to expose themselves to risks. Olinda voices her concern: "We must continue to fight until people get it right in their heads that to put an end to HIV we must change our behavior", she says. On a positive note, she adds that discrimination towards AIDS patients has diminished. “Today we tend to consider this disease a social problem that everyone has to fight”, she says. With changes in behavior, and easier access to government-guaranteed antiretroviral drugs, things can only get better.
“Reencontro” is also very committed to searching for long-distance support for the neediest children. In this respect, they work in close collaboration with Child Fund International.
Olinda Mugabe is an optimist and a woman of faith. In her own calm way, she expresses her satisfaction with the recent Peace Consolidation Agreements, signed between the Mozambique Government and armed resistance movement, Renamo. Previously, “Reencontro” volunteers were afraid to travel inland to assist the orphaned children there, because of the conflict.
According to Olinda, cyclones Idai and Kenneth, which devastated central-northern Mozambique last March and April, causing hundreds of deaths, paradoxically had a positive effect, strengthening gestures of solidarity among people. For their part, members of the Association collected money and goods that they sent to the people of Beira who had lost everything.
Now Olinda is anxiously awaiting the visit of Pope Francis to Mozambique. Pope's visit. For her, the Pope is a "living model of Christ" who will encourage people to give of themselves to others, especially to children, the sick, and the disabled. Olinda confesses that, as far as she is concerned, she would be satisfied to touch the hem of the Pope's garment, just like the woman with a hemorrhage in the Gospel. A woman religious who is busy preparing the liturgical vestments for the Papal Mass, smilingly reminds her not to get her hopes up.
While members of the Association collaborate in their respective parishes in preparing for the papal visit, “Reecontro” will offer lodging at its headquarters to twelve pilgrims coming from provinces that are more distant.
Gifts aboard the papal flight
On board the plane bringing the Pope to Mozambique, is a gift for the children of “Reencontro”: school supplies, sports equipment, clothes, toys and a small financial contribution. It is the result of a collection made by the D.VA Association, “Women in the Vatican”. It is also a sign of love and solidarity between two associations run by women, sharing common Christian values and wanting to care for others, especially children.
Olinda and her companions work to ensure the children in their care grow up healthy and free from both spiritual and material poverty. They do this with the means they have, but they welcome help, material and spiritual, from wherever it comes. “We need your strength”, says Olinda, “and this strength comes from prayer as well”.