By Robin Grant
One of the first things Aimi Duong says she noticed while photographing the NGO Mufindi Orphans was the orphanage's happy and vibrant children. Despite being considered at-risk youth, they rarely resisted the opportunity to flash her giant toothy smiles. In the evenings, after she completed her assignments for the day, Duong said she loved to explore the village situated in the lush green highlands of south Tanzania. She was touched by the scenes of children laughing and playing together, or what she described as "kids being kids." "I loved all the life happening around the village," she said. "Because I feel like even back at home for me, in America, now it’s becoming rare that kids are actually kids. They don’t get a chance to be really kids."
Duong recently completed an assignment with Mufindi Orphans for Photographers Without Borders where she documented the NGO's efforts to provide shelter, sustenance, education and medical care for children in the remote yet beautiful Mufindi district. During her stay, she witnessed malnourished infants the "size of coke cans," women and men stricken by AIDS and other diseases resulting from weakened immune systems and she heard many of the children's tragic stories. But Duong described the people she met as survivors who exhibited strength, dignity and charisma under unfortunate circumstances. "My whole approach was to capture the people in a positive light," Duong said. "I know a lot of them have faced so much trauma and continue to have so many hurdles, but because of this NGO, their lives have been made significantly better.”
Established to curtail the spread of HIV in rural communities, Mufindi Orphans built the first Children's Village house in 2007. Today, there are six Children's Houses, each with their own "House Parent" so they can grow up in a family environment. The NGO currently provides care for 50 children, ranging from infants to teenagers.
On one of her walks through the village, Duong was greeted by 13-year-old Castori. “He was a charmer," Duong said. "He was just like: ‘Hey, how are you? Where are you from? What are you doing here?’ And I asked him what he wanted to be and how old he was." His response? A race car driver. Like the lives of many at-risk children before arriving at the orphanage, Castori didn't have the opportunity to go to school. Instead, Duong explained that his father made him earn a living, either working in the fields or helping with chores around the house. When she met Castori, his life had changed drastically—for the better. “He’s just so confident and very happy and healthy and smart and witty. And I just felt like the NGO definitely had a lot to do with that. Providing him with a safe place and a healthy environment to be in and the opportunity to go to school.”
Duong began her time with the NGO photographing the daily activities of the orphanage. But in an unexpected turn of events, she accompanied volunteer doctor Leena Pasanen on her home-based care visits. Mufindi Orphans started the home-based care program in 2009 to provide medical care to the most sick and vulnerable children in the district. This program helps to keep accurate and updated health information on the community. When the NGO has a visiting doctor or specialist, volunteers can streamline their community visits so they reach the greatest number of patients in need of medical help.
"It was a humbling experience to be invited into all of these people's homes—a lot of them were very ill. And they were so welcoming for me to document them essentially being sick," Duong recalled. "I can’t even put words to it. It was very sad. I saw a lot of sick people, a lot of them with HIV, combined with other illnesses. HIV was very common. It was very sad, but, at the same time, it was great to see that Dr. Leena has invested so much time and continues to take care of these people."