Hardship & Hope

by Casey Schilperoort

Nine years ago my family started sponsoring a little girl in Tanzania. We knew she and her mother were living with HIV. We knew they struggled with poverty. What we didn’t know was the depth of love we would come to feel for this special family.

Before working with Lahash, I knew very little about the impact of HIV in East Africa. I soon realized that an HIV diagnosis is not just a health threat. The shame, stigma, and discrimination associated with the disease often leaves people on the outside of the very communities they need to help them survive. Add the effects of poverty, and the risks become much greater. On my first trip to Tanzania as Lahash’s new Media Director, one of my projects was to find out more about what life is like for people who were facing these challenges personally.

Our local partner ministry in the city of Dodoma had started a support group for women who were HIV-positive, and I was introduced to one of the members, Tatu Ally. I visited her small mud-brick home to film an interview, and quickly found her to be very warm and welcoming. She was open and talkative as she shared about her life and her family, about the hardships she faced due to HIV, and her hope that maybe things could be different for her children.

As we sat and talked with the camera rolling, a small girl walked over and climbed into her lap. For the rest of the interview, this shy little person sat quietly in her mother’s arms. Tatu introduced me to her daughter, Khadijah, and explained that she, too, was HIV-positive.

In a culture where the shame connected with HIV/AIDS often forced people to hide their health status and waste away in the shadows, Tatu had chosen to be open and vocal about being HIV-positive. But it had cost her dearly. She was ostracized by her Muslim community after telling them about her disease. Her own husband soon abandoned the family. Without a community of support, her health deteriorated quickly as she struggled to care for herself and her small daughters on her own.

She told me about the day she heard of a Christian ministry at a local church that was caring for people with HIV. In desperation, she walked for miles to the church and asked for help. They not only invited her to join their support group for women living with HIV/AIDS, they also offered to help secure sponsorship for her daughters through the Lahash Child Sponsorship Program. For Tatu, it was a miracle. She was welcomed with open arms into a community that loved and accepted her regardless of her religion or her health status. That experience showed her the true love of Jesus, and she gave her life to Christ. She began coming to church and also bravely speaking out against the stigma associated with HIV at local awareness events. She encouraged many others to stop hiding, get tested, and learn to “live positively” with the disease.

As thankful as Tatu was to be connected to the support group, she was still dealing with the overwhelming stresses of poverty. Her health was a constant struggle marked by frequent, and at times life-threatening sickness. This severely limited her ability to provide for her family’s basic needs. I could see for myself that their food was sparse and simple, lacking the nutrition their weakened immune systems needed. Their rusted metal roof leaked when it rained, and the children mostly slept down on the floor. Tatu couldn’t afford the uniforms or fees required to send her girls to school. But despite their current hardships, Tatu clearly had hope for their future. She repeatedly praised God for the love and support of Lahash and the church.

After the sun had set and darkness forced an end to our interview, Tatu cooked us a meal. She continued talking long into the night, as we ate together by the dim light of a small kerosene lamp. I learned that Khadijah’s older sister had already been sponsored through Lahash, and Tatu was praying that Khadijah would get a sponsor soon, too, and be able to go to school. Not wanting to leave her mother’s side, Khadijah had fallen asleep in Tatu’s arms. As we talked, Tatu loosened the edge of a brightly colored cloth from around her shoulders and used it to cover her daughter, a small gesture symbolic of her deep love.

After meeting Khadijah on that first trip in 2009, our family decided to become her sponsor. Over the years we wrote letters, prayed for her, and sent gifts. Each Christmas we had opportunities to provide for specific needs like a bed and mattress or new metal roofing sheets. As I continued to travel with Lahash, I stopped in to see Khadijah and her family whenever I was in town. I was encouraged by the slow, consistent improvement in their family’s situation. Most recently, I stayed with them in late 2017.

Their small, simple home was in better shape than I had ever seen it. Even Tatu’s health seemed less fragile than before. She was raising chickens and also sewing and selling patchwork blankets to provide some income. She expressed her gratitude in Swahili as she pointed up at the new sections of roof shining in contrast to the older metal. Then it was Khadijah’s turn. She took my hand and proudly showed me her bed and mattress making sure I noticed the colorful blanket laying on top. She had been learning to sew alongside her mother and had made this one herself. The bright fabrics and random patterns were so beautiful. She had even sold a few of her blankets and had earned enough to buy herself a pretty pair of heeled shoes. I was impressed — not only with the things she was sewing, but with the young woman she was becoming. Khadijah had recently completed Primary School, and her normally shy expression broke into a huge smile as she showed me the photos from her graduation ceremony. She had just taken her national exams, and the results would determine which high school she would be eligible to attend.

The next day, as I prepared to leave, Tatu handed me a special gift. It was one of her beautiful patchwork blankets. We hugged and said our goodbyes, and I left feeling thankful and encouraged! Their family was doing so well. Sponsorship was making a huge difference in Khadijah’s life. Her future looked brighter than ever.

A month later her exam results finally came back. Unfortunately, they were not good. Her scores were too low to be accepted into any of the government-funded high schools. She was devastated. She had hoped to be the first in her family to make it beyond Primary School. Just like that, her dreams of continuing her education were over. In the effort to find out why she had done so poorly, it was discovered that Khadijah’s hearing had significantly deteriorated. Tatu was almost completely deaf as a complication from HIV, and it appeared Khadijah’s hearing had been seriously affected as well. In the wake of this difficult news, Tatu became seriously ill. She had been on the brink of death many times before, so everyone hoped that she would again recover. But soon after being hospitalized, Tatu passed away. In just a few short months, Khadijah’s bright future had dimmed back into sadness and uncertainty.

I was sitting at my desk in the Lahash office in Portland when I found out Tatu had died. I called my wife, Abbe, and broke the news as I struggled to sift through my own sadness and emotions. When I arrived home that evening, my eyes were drawn to the multi-colored, patchwork blanket Abbe had spread out across the kitchen table. Our dinner was set out on top of the bright yellows and greens, bold reds, and deep blues. A single, tall candle burned softly in the center. From the other side of the world, our family cried, prayed, and grieved along with Khadijah.

In the following weeks I continued to feel the weight of Tatu’s death. I was grateful to know that she was now with Christ, yet her passing had also left a gaping hole in Khadijah’s life at a critical time. So many questions were swirling in my head. What would happen to her now? Was sponsorship really making a difference? Could eight years of progress unravel that quickly, leaving behind an orphaned girl with little education to struggle on her own?

Even as Khadijah’s life seemed to be falling apart at the seams, we saw God at work. The same church community that had welcomed Tatu and her family years before was right there to offer comfort and support to Khadijah and her sisters. They gathered to mourn with the family. They provided Khadijah with a new hearing aid. They connected her to alternative education options, and our family gladly offered to help cover additional tuition costs. Our kids even offered to give some of their own money.

In the wake of tragedy, my questions and doubts about the impact of sponsorship were so clearly answered. Even though Tatu is gone, Khadijah is not alone. Like the patchwork blankets she sewed with her mother, many small parts have been stitched together to make something beautiful and big enough to cover her. She is surrounded by people who love and care for her—my family included. We share in her joys and sorrows. Her needs have become our needs. Through sponsorship, she has been sewn into our family, too.

God is at work, in Khadijah’s life and in ours as well. Khadijah’s future is still uncertain in many ways, and we are grateful to be a small part of the big community that surrounds her and hundreds of other sponsored children when they need it most.

Khadijah’s story is a striking reminder of how truly vulnerable these children are, and how quickly their outlook can change. The beauty of sponsorship is the commitment to love and care for each other like family, through all of life’s ups and downs. As sponsors we are invited to remind these kids that they are seen, they are loved, and they are not alone. Sometimes that means celebrating progress and success. Sometimes, it means walking together through the pain of hardship and bravely holding on to the promise of hope.

Sponsorship changes lives. Yours can be on of them.
Become a sponsor today at lahash.org/sponsorship