Gladys Kalibbala Reminds Us That One Person Can Make a Difference

Cover detail from Garden of the Lost and Abandoned by Jessica Yu © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

“Compassion fatigue.” It’s a term that gets used when (mostly) Westerners declare that they just can’t spare one more ounce of compassion for those who are suffering. Given the self-inflicted wound that many American voters thrust on this nation, and the consequent series of nearly daily bad news reports, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that compassion fatigue is spreading. For me, it’s “bad news fatigue” that has made me stop reading the daily news, stop checking social media, and stop engaging in meaningless discussions with people who insist that as long as everything is okay with themselves and their families, there is nothing wrong in the world.

Instead, I’ve immersed myself in the world of books. Whether it’s reading Matt Taibbi’s I Can’t Breathe  or Kevin Young’s Bunk, or reading fiction like the novels that were nominated for the National Book Award, I have found a way to keep myself informed about the world at large without getting buried in the avalanche of sadness that daily newspapers carry.

I read books because they imply that an author has done complex research on a topic. Rather than “reacting” to each story that comes up, I can instead read deeply into a subject, come to my own conclusions, and determine what I can do going forward that will make the world a better place. That seems to be a better solution than endlessly worrying about the collapsing world around me, and feeling powerless. Because that is what compassion fatigue really is: a general sense of powerlessness, or feeling that suffering is too big for any single person to make a difference.

So, for those who need a reminder that one person can make a difference, let me introduce you to Gladys Kalibbala, the subject of Jessica Yu’s new book, Garden of the Lost and Abandoned. In wealthy nations, people are living long lives with a HIV-positive diagnosis due to antiviral drugs and other treatments. But in 2013, Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 70 percent of all AIDS deaths worldwide. While that number is staggering, what many people forget is that many of those who die from AIDS have children who are orphaned by the disease.

Over the years, I have known or read of several Americans who have joined with compatriots in Africa to create refuges for these children. Keela Dates graduated from Wells College in 2006 and almost immediately created an American organization to aid the Jambo Jipya orphanage in Kenya. A recent Baltimore Sun article detailed the efforts of a local man to build a “city” for orphans in Uganda. And while Americans’ efforts on behalf of these orphans is praise-worthy, by far, the most remarkable story is that of “Aunty Gladys,” who has made reuniting lost children with relatives, or finding homes for orphans, her life’s work.

Garden of the Lost and Abandoned is a joyful book. Gladys Kalibbala is a force of righteousness, often supporting children out of her own meager pocket. Yu acts as witness to Kalibbala’s work, taking readers along with Gladys as she travels all over Uganda, tracking down potential homes for the children who end up on the streets of Kampala. Miss Kalibbala writes for the Ugandan newspaper, New Vision. Each week, she updates readers on the situations of children that have been brought to her attention, often by social workers or police officers whose low salaries and lack of resources keep them from being able to aid the children directly. Instead, Kalibbala presents the stories to readers, asking for clues as to who these children might be related to, often because children who end up on the street in Kampala do so because they have become separated from family members. Some of them have been abandoned, some have been orphaned and left without homes, and some, like many American “street kids,” are there because they faced physical and sexual abuse in their homes.

The children’s stories may be familiar to American readers – teenage girls who are trying to raise young children with no support from the men who impregnated them or from family members. Other stories are more difficult to comprehend: newborns abandoned in pit toilets because there is literally no food to nourish one more mouth. And if Americans think that these children are the products of irresponsibility, it’s a good time to remember that the President Ronald Reagan instituted the “global gag rule,” which prevents American-funded health organizations from discussing birth control options that may induce abortion. The rule is overturned each time a Democrat is elected president, reinstated with each Republican administration. If a person cannot access reliable contraceptive information, unintended pregnancies often follow.

Gladys Kalibbala is proof that there are still individuals who are making immeasurable differences in a broken world. Readers who are interested in finding out more about Kalibbala’s work, in addition to reading the book, may find information at Jessica Yu’s website.