Out of Africa

Craig native navigates through AIDS, violence to care for Ugandan orphans

The message came from Genesis.

Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.

The destination: Uganda.

The words still resound in Siouxanne Mease's ears. The mission she was charged with ordered her away from home.

Asked her to forfeit life in America. Urged her to forgo comfort for charity, sacrifice and uncertainty in Africa.

So she shut down life in the States. Quit a $45 an hour job as a registered nurse in Aspen. Sold her possessions. Bid goodbye to her six children and 12 grandchildren.

And she left.

There was a reason why she started what she did the summer of 2005.

God asked her to.

"That's kind of the word given to me to show me what I was supposed to do," said Mease, a Craig native and the health care coordinator for the Amani Baby Cottage in Jinja, Uganda.

"It's where I was called to be. I felt like it was my time. I wanted to be a missionary since I was a little girl. I figured this was my time to go and be there."

The cottage by the lake

Amani Baby Cottage, a shelter located near the shores of Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile River, provides refuge for abandoned children.

Horrible circumstances lead the children here.

Some kids are placed in the orphanage by local authorities or social welfare workers. Others are taken in after being abandoned by their parents at birth.

A few have no family, orphaned by parents who died from AIDS.

They are found at taxi stops, in latrines and on the street. They end up in the arms of 30 Ugandan workers and several volunteers from around the world, operating under the umbrella of faith.

Mease first came upon the village in June 2005. Through Tulsa, Okla.-based Believers World Outreach, Mease spent two weeks helping care for the Amani children.

Her heart has been in the cottage ever since.

She quotes another Bible passage, James 1:27, when asked why she undertook the endeavor.

"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world," the verse reads.

"I felt like God was speaking to me," Mease said, "through that verse."

The epidemic

Operating more as a doctor than a nurse, Mease now tends to the health care needs of 56 children. They range in age from newborns to 4 years old.

Some of those children will test positive for AIDS, a disease that infects close to 7 percent of all Ugandan adults. Mease cares for two children -- 2-year-old Bobbi and 3-year-old Sophia -- who were born with the disease.

She provides a first-hand perspective on the epidemic of AIDS in Africa and has seen the ill effects up close.

"If you think it's a problem here (in the United States), it's nothing compared to Uganda," Mease said. "It's horrible and it's only now starting to get better.

"I'm faced with AIDS every day. I've even been tested a couple of times to make sure I'm OK."

Still, those who do not contract AIDS face other health challenges. Tuberculosis, malaria, syphilis -- they are all dangers to the people of Uganda.

Mease said poverty and a weak educational system contribute to the country's struggles.

The economic disparity in Uganda is wide. Mease said one side of the street might feature a sprawling British estate and the other side a dilapidated ghetto.

A worker at Amani, for example, works 10 to 12 hours per day and earns about 90,000 shillings a month -- the rough equivalent of $45 dollars.

"And that's a very good wage for a Ugandan," she said.

The poverty translates into other areas.

Many can't afford the high cost of education, she said, or even to get married.

"Many never get married because they can't afford it," she said. "Promiscuity is really, really bad. There really isn't anything else for them to do."

The war at home

Dangers in Uganda don't end with AIDS or other diseases.

Up north, about 12 hours away from Jinja, warfare is occurring.

The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a guerilla group led by warlord Joseph Kony, have waged a violent campaign against the people of northern Uganda to establish a theocratic government in Uganda.

Kony, who claims to be a spirit medium, and his men have abducted an estimated 20,000 children since their rebellion began in 1987.

Mease isn't in the direct line of fire.

But, she isn't immune to the tragedy occurring in the northern region. Her heart bleeds for the men, women, and especially the children, who routinely face danger from Kony and his henchmen.

"(They) are being raped, beaten and cut up," she said. "People are being killed by the thousands. It's always violent. There are mobs everywhere."

Mease lives in Jinja's downtown district in a secure, fortified apartment building.

She returned to Craig recently to begin raising money for her mission work and to visit with family.

Mease said fundraising for her work is constant and never-ending. It's the price to pay for conforming to God's will, she said.

"I'm still amazed God trusts me enough to do this," she said. "It's a big task, a very big task. I'll be there until I'm told it's time for me to come back home. Right now, it's where I need to be."

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