Compassion in Action

Theresa Kaijage used her social work skills and empathy to trailblaze support systems for people with HIV/AIDS in Tanzania.
Illustrated by
Zach Beresh / inspired by the photography of Lisa A. Brown

When Theresa Kaijage welcomes visitors into her office in the heart of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, they are greeted by the framed serenity prayer sitting at the edge of  her desk.

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” the prayer begins.

An illustration of KaijageThese words have guided much of Kaijage’s journey as a social work leader. She often asks herself and her colleagues: “What are the things you need to change, and what are the things you need to accept?”

This wisdom was never more useful to her than in the early 1980s. After earning a master’s degree in social work from Missouri’s Washington University, Kaijage, who grew up in Tanzania, returned to an East Africa ravaged by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

People were dying by the hundreds, children were orphaned and cases of what Tanzanians called the “slim disease” were rising just as quickly as the stigma and fear around it. Kaijage was determined to help.

She spent years volunteering to support HIV/AIDS patients while serving as an educator at Tanzania’s Institute of Social Work. Then, in 1989, she founded WAMATA, an acronym for what translates from Swahili into People in the Fight Against AIDS in Tanzania. She aimed to provide centered assistance by connecting affected individuals and families to medical, social and mental health support.

With WAMATA, Kaijage (SOC WK ’04G, SPH ’04G) pioneered what would become one of Tanzania’s first—and now longest-serving—HIV clinics run by a nongovernmental organization. She also distributed food, arranged counseling resources and offered educational opportunities.

“My whole idea was to give the country a model to support families affected by HIV and AIDS,” she says.

Eventually, Kaijage decided that she wanted to further her education in pursuit of making an even bigger difference. She came to Pitt, where she earned a doctorate from the School of Social Work and a master’s degree from the School of Public Health in 2004. When she returned to Tanzania and her work at WAMATA, she was imbued with new skills and fresh ideas—particularly about the need to shift conversations around disease from shame to support.

With her well of compassion and leading-edge approach to community-based public health, Kaijage has built WAMATA into an engine for change. With it, she and her team have touched lives across Tanzania’s towns and villages, urged pharmaceutical companies to make treatments more affordable, leveraged support for orphaned children and garnered international funding and acclaim for their work. 

Today, Kaijage, chair of Hubert Kairuki Memorial University’s Department of Social Work, remains committed to those with HIV/AIDS and their families. She’s also continuing to seek new paths to a better Tanzania and is involved in efforts to create new partnerships and master’s programs in social work, with hopes that the next generation of students in Tanzania and beyond will have greater access to the kind of education that helped her lead WAMATA.

While she doesn’t think her work will ever be complete, she’s pleased with the headway she’s made in changing what she could.

“The country took the model, and it got passed to so many other organizations and so many programs. As far as I’m concerned, my mission is accomplished,” she says with a smile.

This story was published Aug. 21, 2023. It is part of Pitt Magazine's Fall 2023 issue.