For AIDS orphans, lessons on life - and car repair

For businessman Yasin Mbuka, life used to be all about making a profit. Back then, he toiled hard to expand his budding businesses - a grocery store and a car-repair garage. "I was somebody who would stand alone," he says, and not think much about others.

But that was before both he and his beloved wife got sick - and before his businesses were plundered by increasingly desperate employees. "It was before we knew about this pandemic," he says, referring to AIDS.

Now his wife, many of his friends, and his businesses are gone. But amid the loss, Mr. Mbuka has found a new way to function. In the shell of his old garage a few weeks ago he opened a car-mechanic school for orphans - for kids who, like more than 12 million African children, have lost their parents to AIDS.

Every morning, 27 young people pile into Mbuka's dusty courtyard. They start the day by expressing gratitude to God, by hoisting aloft a rusted Ford gearbox for exercise, and by hearing bits of wisdom from a gentle widower. "The little I have," he says, describing his new focus in life, "I have to share with these young kids."

Each morning, after this Muslim man leads the mostly Christian students in generic prayers, he exhorts them with things like, "Don't go in for smoking and drinking," and "avoid sexual intercourse."

In all, 12.1 million children in Africa and more than 15 million worldwide have lost their parents to AIDS, the UN says. At current rates, there could be 20 million AIDS orphans by 2010.

There are many efforts to help them. Just up the road in this small nation in southeastern Africa, a school and orphanage that cares for 700 children is funded by a professor and students at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. In South Africa, Oprah Winfrey has brought support and gifts to thousands of orphans. Across Africa the UN children's agency, UNICEF, backs programs such as "junior farmers," which teach kids the agricultural skills their parents didn't have the time to pass along.

But Mbuka's new school is a home-grown effort that emerged out of one man's desire to help the children of his departed friends. Many of those friends, in this country where 14 percent of adults are diagnosed HIV-positive, were felled by AIDS. "When it came to my mind that I should assist my friends by helping their children, I couldn't ignore it," says Mbuka, clad in a Pierre Cardin dress shirt, a relic of his prosperous past.

His effort is among the most-effective kind, experts say. "Interventions that are home-based and community-based and have a life of their own" rather than being imported and supported from outside "are the ones that work best," says Sarah Crowe of UNICEF's regional office in South Africa.

After hearing bits of Mbuka's wisdom, the kids take turns hoisting the gearbox, which weighs about 40 pounds and is from a 1970s Ford. "You must exercise to be strong in body - and in mind," instructs Mbuka. He joins them in lifting, which is remarkable, given that in 2001 he himself weighed just 119 pounds. "I never dreamed I could again hold a thing so heavy," he says.

After his wife fell sick in 1997, he too became ill. She died in 2001. Then in 2002, the international aid group Doctors Without Borders set up a clinic nearby - and began giving Mbuka and others anti-retroviral drugs. He has recovered to the point where he now hoists the gearbox overhead - although with a grimace that gets the kids giggling.

After morning calisthenics, teacher and students delve into the nitty-gritty of car repair; taking apart and rebuilding engines, brakes, and other parts of the three junky vehicles in his repair yard, including a 1972 Ford Escort, which is significantly older than each of Mbuka's students.

At first, Mbuka figured his kids would go to class only in the morning - and work or take care of family in the afternoon. But after the first week, they begged to stay all day, even if it meant skipping lunch. Few can afford a midday meal anyway.

Their hurry to finish school bespeaks the pressures they face. Many have their own families to feed - and want to rush through training to get well-paying jobs as mechanics. Africa's orphans go to school less often than children with parents still alive. In one UNICEF study of several African nations, on average, there were only 83 orphans in class for every 100 students with parents.

One of his students is 20-year-old Hendrina Diverson, a mom with a wide smile. Her parents died in 1988 and left her with "nothing to do." She now has a baby son, whom her sister cares for while Hendrina is at school.

This makeshift family is counting on Hendrina to get a job and support all three of them soon. "In six months we will go far," Hendrina says, referring to the time Mbuka expects to have his students ready to take the national mechanics exam. Already, by being in school, she proudly exclaims, she has become "strong enough to lift an engine."

Or there's Vison Kenne, a 22-year-old who's one of Mbuka's top students. If he passes the national exam, he could earn the princely official wage of $42 a month. "If I had so much money," says the earnest and sinewy young man, "I would open my own garage, and I would help my relatives so we could end our poverty."

In reality, though, with Malawi's struggling economy, many trained mechanics settle for earning $15 a month - although that's still more than, for instance, the $7 a month primary school teachers make. But realistically, Mbuka allows, many of these kids won't get jobs, at least for a while.

Training them is the best he can do for now. "If we were to stay quiet" and not do the training "then even if they got a chance" to work, they would only be able to "stand idle," he says.

In the optimistic tone of a man who has lived longer and is giving more than he ever expected, he adds, "We don't know what will happen tomorrow."

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