An Impossible Choice

Only a few years ago, the 50 percent HIV/AIDS infection rate on Mfangano Island, one of Kenya’s poorest communities, was among the highest in the world. A culture of prostitution and sexual promiscuity facilitated the rapid spread of HIV which ultimately decimated an entire generation.

Like so many of his generation, a man by the name of Thomas contracted HIV. He died leaving his wife, Benta, and three daughters destitute and alone.

Benta was fortunate to have a place to live, though it was little more than a mud hut with no electricity or running water. Working odd jobs she was able to make 400 Kenyan shillings – equivalent to about $5 U.S. dollars – each month. This is far below the $1.25 a day income level that the United Nations defines as extreme poverty. The family survived by eating boiled bitter greens called “sukuma,” “wiki” or “ugali,” which are made from maize, water and beans. Though it often made them sick, they drank water from Lake Victoria, the extremely contaminated lake the island sits on.

An impossible choice
On her meager income, Benta quickly found herself struggling to put food on the table and pay Kenya’s public school tuition. It seemed the only option left was for her oldest daughter, Devaline, to drop out of school and work to help support the family.

Without an education, Devaline’s future would be bleak. She might find odd jobs like her mother, but on an island where some women have to use their bodies to “pay” a fisherman for the right to buy his catch, it was far more likely that Devaline would find herself drawn into prostitution. If this happened, she would probably contract HIV. While this seems unthinkable, Benta was faced with an impossible situation. She could not let her family starve.

Divine providence
Just when dropping out of school seemed inevitable, Devaline was selected to attend Gethsemane Garden Christian Centre (GGCC), a free Christian boarding school complete with sharp uniforms, a computer lab and a library.

GGCC helps children just like Devaline. Their vision is, “To give hope to, and empower, children who are victims of poverty and HIV/AIDS by providing them with a quality, Christian-based education.” They believe that education, so often out of reach for Mfangano Island’s families, is a critical stepping stone out of poverty.

“Educated people have many opportunities to come back and make a huge impact, depending on their specific training,” says Devaline’s sponsor, Greg Lineberger. “Because the people of Mfangano Island live on so little, any money at all that she can provide for her family will allow them to continue their education, help lift them out of poverty, and ensure that no one in her family feels the need to turn to prostitution.”

Devaline will graduate from GGCC in 2014 and hopes to go to college on a national scholarship. While Devaline’s family still lives in poverty, she knows her education is their hope for a better future.

One of the lucky few
Unfortunately, the impossible choice Benta’s family faced between starvation and prostitution is not unique. There are 1.4 billion people around the world who are unable to afford even basic necessities like food and clean water. The insatiable sex trade feeds on those who live in extreme poverty and, as a result, HIV/AIDS is transmitted at a devastating rate. This only fuels the self-perpetuating cycle of poverty by leaving behind vulnerable orphans and widows.

What is unique about Benta’s story is that Devaline was given an opportunity that most people in these circumstances never have. Her education has the potential to stop the cycle of poverty for her whole family. “I count my blessings every day, one by one, and find that God has used you to be a blessing to me,” Devaline writes to Lineberger.

The gift of hope
This Christmas season, you can give an invaluable gift to a family trapped in extreme poverty through investing in their future. To break the cycle of poverty, a family needs the ability to support itself. This happens through strategic investments, like the education Devaline is receiving at GGCC.

Sponsor a child through an organization like GGCC, Compassion International or World Help. Your support will give a child the potential to escape poverty through education. Invest in an aspiring seamstress or farm by funding a microloan, through an organization like Kiva, to put a family on the path out of extreme poverty. Send the gift of chickens or goats to a poor family through World Vision’s Gift Catalog in order to provide them with long-term sustainable income.

Hope for those living in extreme poverty does not come wrapped with ribbons and bows. It will not be the prettiest present under your Christmas tree, but it can be the most meaningful gift you give this season.

Keri is a freelance writer. She blogs regularly at keriwilliams.wordpress.com.

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