In the global fight against the AIDS pandemic, Africa is the most high profile battleground. Southern Africa is particularly hard hit.
Swaziland is a small kingdom about the size of the state of Massachusetts. One in every five Swazis is HIV positive, according to the United Nations. That amounts to some 200,000 men, women and children infected with HIV—twice the population of Berkeley.
As World AIDS Day observances propel the plight of Swaziland into the global conscience, volunteers from the Bay Area are traveling there to address the issue themselves.
They call themselves Project Comm“Unity.” On Dec. 1, they will begin a 30-day visit to Southern Africa. During this trip, they hope to secure the land they will use for an ambitious project benefiting Swazi children affected by HIV and AIDS.
Project Comm“Unity” was founded by Kim Vereen, of Salinas, and her sister, Beth Kane, of Columbia, South Carolina. Last December, they made their first trip to Swaziland.
The sisters knew the need was great when they began their journey. However, once they arrived, they were overwhelmed by the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS, particularly on the children orphaned by the pandemic.
United Nations statistics show 69,000 children in Swaziland have lost their parents to AIDS. By 2010, the number of AIDS orphans is expected to reach 120,000.
After their trip to Swaziland, Vereen and Kane started making plans to build an entire community devoted to Swazi families affected by AIDS. Their plan includes building an orphanage for 5,000 children, along with schools, a health care complex, and a hospice center where dying parents can maintain contact with their children.
“The children lose everything once their parents die,” said Vereen. “They need everything.”
The Project Comm“Unity” Africa team consists of 14 volunteers in the Bay Area and in South Carolina. With the help of the Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Center in San Jose and Celebration Worship Center in Salinas, the volunteers are working to raise $70 million over the next five years. So far, they have raised about $30,000.
One fundraising effort encourages Bay Area school children to help build the Swazi schools one brick at a time, by raising money in $10 increments. The school that raises the most money will have a Swazi school named in its honor.
Anindya Kar, of Oakland, is one of the volunteers heading to Swaziland this week.
The 33-year old UC Berkeley alumnus has always been active in community service. She is a member of the Rotary Club of Oakland and has worked as a mentor with Girls, Inc. However, this is Kar’s first foray into service on a global scale.
Kar said she’s not sure what to expect.
“I’m just sort of going because I know I’m supposed to,” she said. “I’ve actually kind of kept myself in the dark.”
Kar said her knowledge about the pandemic in Southern Africa consists mainly of what she’s read in the newspaper or seen on television. Since she joined Project Comm“Unity,” Kar said she has intentionally limited her exposure to news from the region.
“I think if I knew too much, it might scare me a little. Just the idea of housing 5,000 kids, that’s huge,” she said. “I think the more I knew before going the more my feet would drag.”
Kar said the Swaziland project is just the beginning for Project Comm“Unity.”
“It’s planting those initial seeds in me about what’s necessary and how we can really help and then carrying that vision beyond where we start in Swaziland to other parts of the world.”
Kar said the group’s next project likely will be in Calcutta, India, where her parents were born.
“We are a nation that’s very blessed in our resources, in our infrastructure, in our modern conveniences, and most of the world doesn’t have that,” she said. “So, if we can share some of that with other people then I think that’s our responsibility to do that.”
For details on Project Comm“Unity” see www.freewebs.com/sisters05.