Of all the elements that can help change a person's life, hope is the most powerful -- just ask Fred Ssewamala, an assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work (CUSSW) whose own future once seemed to hold only bleakness and loss.
"I was orphaned at age 12," says Ssewamala, who grew up in central Uganda. "Because of this, I know what orphans in Africa are going through. It's so important to help them to understand that they have a future."
Ssewamala's parents, two older siblings and a niece were killed by a military group during a period of civil unrest, and he survived thanks to the efforts of aunts, uncles and cousins who pooled their meager earnings to keep him in school until eventually he earned a prestigious national scholarship to Makere University. He then went on to Washington University in St. Louis for his graduate and Ph.D. work before coming to Columbia.
But as difficult as his childhood was, notes Ssewamala, many of the orphans in Uganda today face even more daunting challenges.
"The HIV/AIDS epidemic has hit my country very hard. In Africa, because we do not have government-sponsored social services, we traditionally take care of each other. A parent, in my culture, is anyone who cares for you," he says. "But this disease has so ravaged the society that many people can no longer fall back on the tradition of extended family support. It has weakened and frayed."
He further notes that AIDS orphans "are among the highest risk children in Ugandan society. We know that once they get through the free primary school system, they are the most likely to drop out because they can't pay for secondary school. They usually turn to a life on the streets, which puts them at high risk of HIV infection."
Although the situation is dire, Ssewamala now has cause for optimism. He just received word that his SUUBI-Uganda project -- an innovative pilot program that he launched last year with $20,000 in seed money -- qualified for a nearly $500 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. With that sum, Ssewamala estimates that he can help 300 Ugandan families put an orphaned child through high school, either by putting the money into savings or by investing in a small business in the child's name.
"Everyone told me that Ugandans were too poor to save. I told them about my idea, and they said it would never work -- people can't save money in Africa," he recounts. "But I decided to go ahead and try anyway, and what I found was that many families, particularly children, responded very well to the idea of putting some money in the bank. It gives them a feeling of control and empowerment and on some level alleviates some of their anxiety about the future."
SUUBI -- which means "hope" in Luganda, one of many indigenous languages spoken in Uganda -- encourages families to set aside educational funds for orphaned children by promising to double whatever amount has been accumulated by the time the child arrives at secondary school (around eighth grade). But there are some caveats. The money must be placed in a special savings account that the program helps the family to open at a local bank, and the child must be a signatory on the account so that relatives can't withdraw the money independently.
With the $20,000 in seed money he received last January, Ssewamala was able to sign up 101 families for his pilot program. All of them received school books and information on the importance of finishing high school and saving money; but 51 families, functioning as a sample control group, also got bank accounts and the promise of double matching funds. They were allowed to save a maximum of $10 per month.
When the project had run its course, Ssewamala saw results beyond even his best expectations.
"I believed that Ugandans would do well with saving, because in our culture, if we get a bit of extra money, we buy a cow or a goat -- we invest in an asset we can later sell if something goes wrong. So the concept was there," he says. "But I wanted to get people used to the idea of banks, and what I saw was that the families quickly started to think of money not saved as money lost, because they knew that at the end of the project, I would give them double whatever they'd kept."
An added unforeseen benefit was the way that orphaned children, buoyed by the promise of a continuing education, began writing letters to long-lost relatives and friends asking for contributions to their bank accounts. In a small way, Ssewamala believes, the project is helping to restore faith in the family networks that have cracked under the strain of the AIDS epidemic.
Commenting on Ssewamala's pioneering research, CUSSW dean Jeanette Takamura says that she was particularly interested in bringing him to the school of social work "because his work has enormous applicability to communities in developing nations all over the world and to at-risk populations right here in the United States."