Matthew McIlvenna, a Catholic from Britain, was inspired by his faith to found a charity to help children with disabilities in Tanzania. Called Friends of the Children of Tanzania (FOCT), it is a U.K.-based non-governmental organization that provides aid to faith-based action groups on disability in the northwest of the country, around Lake Victoria. It has helped forge a network of Christian denominations and a Muslim non-governmental organization to work for the benefit of Tanzania’s poverty-stricken children with special needs, whom he describes as the “poorest of the poor.”
McIlvenna has worked many years for the U.N. World Food Program and spent much of the past 20 years based in Tanzania and other parts of Africa.
What gave you the idea to start this charity?
The origins of the work we’re doing come out of the horrific Rwanda genocide of the mid-1990s, when the international community and humanitarian agencies mobilized to deal with a million refugees coming over from Rwanda into that part of northwestern Tanzania. It was a tough, horrific experience for the refugees. The Tanzanians there were very gracious in receiving them and living up to their international obligations, and that’s quite typical of Tanzania as a country. It’s been historically stable, historically welcoming and supporting of the freedom struggle of southern Africa, aligned to the freedom movement. So it was entirely consistent that they would receive those refugees, and that’s how we got involved.
I was sent there by the U.N. As the refugees went home, of course the international community and humanitarian agencies left town. And so there was a huge vacuum, and we noticed there was a huge need in that area, in terms of dealing with disability. Within the context of Tanzania, it’s a very remote area, and there’s a lack of social, medical, community services available. When you combine disability on top of poverty, it’s an additional level of vulnerability.
Is disability more common in Africa than in most other places?
Yes. You have the genetic predisposition to disability, and then there’s acquired disability — and both are more prevalent in Africa than they would be in, for example, Western Europe. In terms of genetics, these are related to nutritional issues, maternal nutrition, during the development of the child in the womb, and to lower levels of inoculation and vaccination.
In terms of acquired disability, there are many factors, malaria being a leading one, which can go cerebral into the brain and causes cerebral palsy. There’s a higher prevalence of accidents in this part of Africa. When you have a worse maintained road, and less maintained vehicles, there’s a higher chance of accidents, so you’ve got a load of road accidents, which are a leading cause of disability, especially amputations. You’ve got snake bites, often biting the leg. It then goes gangrenous — off.
With the climate here, it’s more conducive to infection; you’ve got osteomyelitis, which is an infection of the bone. It can take root quickly in this warm climate, and, if unaddressed, it can lead to amputation. So you’ve got many acquired reasons for disability as well.
When you combine that disability on top of existing levels of poverty, then many people in this part of the world, in this extreme remote area of Tanzania, are in the bottom 5% quantile. If you are born into the middle class in Western Europe you’re in the top 5%. So these people are really the poorest of poor, and when you add disability on top of that, it’s very difficult. Often, disabled people here are deprived of education, and there’s a stigma attached to it.
Your group is working closely with interdenominational and interfaith groups in the area. Could you tell us more about that?
One of FOCT’s key roles is to forge a network of faith-based partners to work together — Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans and Muslims — with the government of Tanzania being a fifth key partner. The government is quite forward-looking. It has passed laws on the rights of the disabled and promotes their rights. It is a signatory to international conventions on the disabled but needs support at the grassroots level to implement those policies to put policy into practice. So we’re ensuring through our faith-based partners not only to coordinate with each other but to coordinate effectively with the government to make sure that the activities to support the disabled are in line with government policy.
How did your faith inspire you to start this charity?
I was born and raised a Catholic, and so as a Catholic and a Christian, I know it’s demanded of us to promote the rights of the vulnerable, to seek their protection based on the fact that we’re all born in the image and likeness of God.
Being here in Africa is also a very sobering experience, because it makes you realize how much we have — and yet the society of the West makes us focus on what we don’t have. No matter how much we do have, the cultural and economic imperative of our society often forces us to focus on what we don’t have, and that’s what leads to a lot of depression and psychological unhappiness.
Here in Tanzania, many people — not all, but many — don’t have much, and yet there’s a focus on what people have. So I find just working here brings you closer to a sense of God; also because death is always an imminent reality here, which makes you focus on the gift of life that God has given us. It makes you want to use your physical and spiritual energy and time to the best ends possible.
That’s really the gift of Africa and Tanzania: They make you do that. It doesn’t make you worry about what might happen in five years’ time, because there are more urgent needs that require attention now. So it’s a place that incubates and matures one’s faith and inspires you.
And also the example of the people, who can show extraordinary fortitude?
Yes. One of the defining characteristics of people here who are living in the face of adversity, poverty and disability is courage. You come across it on a daily basis: people suffering often in great loneliness, solitude and pain; people enduring loss and death of loved ones on quite a regular basis. (Most mothers will bury at least two of their own children here.) But it’s the fortitude and courage that people display that is very inspiring, and they draw a lot of their strength from their deep spirituality, their faith and their sense of the Holy Spirit and the presence of God in their lives. That’s really something that is prevalent here and very much missing from where I come from in the U.K.
You also help street children through your Lutheran partnership. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
Yes, FOCT supports other vulnerable children, not only disabled children. One of the leading causes of vulnerability of children here is when they lose the protection of their home. …We found an excellent partner, the Lutheran Church of northwestern Tanzania, which has a street-children program. There is quite a big street-children problem around Lake Victoria, with kids running away from their districts 1-2 kilometers away from the main town and ending up on the street, running because of violence at home, alcoholism — often the father drinks too much, gets aggressive with teenage boy; the boy runs away, turns to crime. He can be raped, get infected with HIV, and many other elements of vulnerability the teenage youth will face on the street.
The Lutheran Church decided to do something about it and set up a fantastic center — 70 kids were taken off the street — run by an inspiring Tanzanian Lutheran nun, Sister Adventina, reintegrating them into education, and then trying to negotiate their reintegration into their home communities as much as possible. If that doesn’t work, then they have the capacity and facilities to keep them at the center.
FOCT is now supporting that center in that valuable work.
Runaway girls are most vulnerable because prostitution is the easiest way for them to survive on the street. And then, normally, they are infected [with STDs] within months.
The local staff you work with has made enormous sacrifices to do this work. What sort of things have they had to sacrifice?
Throughout our faith-based partners, there are also many highly motivated Tanzanians who are leading this work, so FOCT is very much in a supporting role to them. These are people who have decided to dedicate their lives and energies to this work, with their skills and professionalism. They could be earning an awful lot more in the private sector. These are highly qualified people. They’ve decided not to; that’s a huge sacrifice, especially within a country linked to poverty like this.
Basically, the richer you are in a context like this, the higher you are above what I would call the “death line.” The richer you go up, the more security you can provide yourself and your kids and your family, and the less likely you’re not going to plummet downwards towards conditions that would induce you or your family’s death because there’s very little social security here.
The government provides health care, some education, but not like in Europe, where you have social-security programs that catch the most vulnerable, or at least should do. Here, once you start dropping, you drop; until, literally, you drop. So the professionals FOCT works with have sacrificed a lot of that economic advantage they could have had to do this work. Not just sacrificing time; it’s real faith in action we’re supporting.
Linked to the deep charitable tradition of Islam and Quran to help the vulnerable in society, it’s an obligation for Muslims to do so. [Those are] positive motivating factors that make common ground.
This works very well, with a lot of collaboration?
Each faith-based group has a comparative advantage. The Catholic Diocese of Bukoba specializes in medical support because they have a hospital called St. Joseph’s in Kagondo, which is becoming a center of excellence for disability and orthopedic work in the Lake Victoria region; so the Catholics provided that facility.
Now you’ve got the Anglican disabled program on the Rwanda border identifying clients who need help and then referring them to the Catholic hospital. Then there’s Izaas, a Muslim group, identifying clients in their locality and referring them to the local Catholic hospital. Sometimes Anglicans will even refer clients to the Muslim group if they have resources to help that client. Obviously everything needs paying for.
And there’s never friction because you’re all so clearly working for the common good, a common goal?
Yes; it’s the fight for human dignity that is motivating all the partners; and this is why the Catholic bishop of Bukoba is so strongly behind the work, because there’s such common ground.
And that’s very much a Tanzanian trait?
Yes: That tone has been very much set since independence. Julius Nyerere, the founding father and president of Tanzania, was a devout Catholic who forged real partnership and cohesion among the faith groups of Tanzania, so Tanzania has never been plagued by the religious strife that characterizes other parts of the African continent and other parts of the world. [There’s] quite a significant level of religious harmony here. So that’s the historical basis for it, and it’s bearing fruit now.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent. He filed this story from Kampala, Uganda.