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HEALTH-SOUTH AFRICA: Children in the Path of the Pandemic

Kathryn Strachan

JOHANNESBURG, Jun 6 2008 (IPS) - There is barely a path leading down the steep incline and through the dense bush to the Mabuyakhulu homestead. It would be easy to pass by without finding 13 year old Zanele* and her eight year old sister Andiswa who stay there on their own.

Their father died long ago and their mother is in hospital dying of AIDS. The two girls have been left completely alone to fend for themselves.

Their mother, Hlengiwe, is at the nearby Mosvold Hospital in Ingwavuma, situated in the far northern corner of KwaZulu Natal on the border of Swaziland, and she does not know what will happen to her children when she is gone.

Zanele has been fetching water and cleaning the house while Andiswa builds a playhouse out of stones. Earlier they had been working in their vegetable garden. Their home – a structure made of sticks woven together with a thin layer of mud plastered over it – looks like it will collapse at any moment and when it rains the water runs down the hillside and gushes in through large holes in the walls.

Their mother has been in hospital for a few months but none of the neighbours have come to see them since she went away, says Zanele. "We miss her but we pray for her – and for our schooling," she says. They are afraid because late at night strangers come and bang on the door. "We just keep the door locked and we stay inside together," she says.

Their older brother left a few months ago and they don't know if he will be coming back. Their mother had also taken an orphaned baby into her home, but relatives of the baby had come to fetch him home when Hlengiwe went to hospital.

Hlengiwe says she hasn't spoken to her children about the fact that she has AIDS and is dying. "But they know that death is death and that it is for everyone," she says. "I worry about them because they are staying in the bush all alone and there is no-one to look out for them. I think about what will happen when I am no longer here and it is painful to think that they will stay all alone."

On the way to Zanele and Andiswa's house you pass the home of 16 year old Nhlanhla Maziya whose mother died of AIDS a few months previously. He was left to look after his twin sister – who has a three-month-old baby – another sister aged 11 and his four year old twin brothers.

His mother was sick for three years before she died, and Nhlanhla had to leave school so that he could earn money to keep the family going. He worked as a herdboy earning $13 a month, and recently he got work clearing the road for $32 a month. For years he has had to cook, fetch water and firewood, and care for his bedridden mother – who was in a lot of pain – and his younger siblings. His twin sister was away looking for a job, so he was the only one keeping the home together.

He does not know who his father is, but has been told that he died. He has no grandparents or aunts and uncles. For the past few weeks, the younger twins have been staying with other relatives who live further away, but the relatives have now told him to come and fetch them home again as they have too many children and cannot afford to look after the twins as well.

Nhlanhla's neighbours do not come to see them. They used to visit when his mother was well, he says, but they stopped when she got sick. "It hurts just to be left alone with the small children. They cry when they are hungry," he says. "The younger ones look to me to look after them."

I came across these children walking down just one path in the remote district of Ingwavuma in the Lebombo Mountains. Scattered along other paths are many more children in the same situation. In the district there are over 3000 orphaned or vulnerable children whose parents are dead or too sick to care for them.

The Ingwavuma Orphan Care Project was set up by Ann Dean, a British doctor, to help families get government child support grants, which are very difficult to access in this remote area. To each family it works with, the project also provides a monthly food supply, but the aim is to get families to grow their own vegetables. It has arranged with local chiefs to make land available to the orphans so they can set up collective gardens and it has provided fencing, tools and seeds.

The orphans meet at "orphan clubs" to discuss subjects such as AIDS prevention, nutrition and trench gardening. The meetings also give them a chance to see that they are not alone in their situation. The project has encouraged many of the schools in the area to take orphans and vulnerable children in even though they cannot pay the school fees.

The project also has 18 teams of community based caregivers to care for people sick with AIDS at home, so that it does not land on the child to tend to their dying parent. But the project is able to assist only half of the orphans in the district.

As parents die, many of the homes they had built are falling apart, especially with the torrential rain in the mountains. The skills for building are being lost over time and a secure home on their family land is one of the most pressing needs for child-headed families in the area, to prevent children being forced to seek shelter elsewhere and being separated from their siblings. It's also essential if they are to protect their tenure on the land.

The Ingwavuma project is based on the belief that it is better for orphans to remain in familiar surroundings, connected to their social network, and many communities have responded by absorbing orphans with resilience and compassion. But there is evidence that families are increasingly struggling under the strain and failing to provide fully for the children's needs.

Neighbours in Ingwavuma and elsewhere are being encouraged to take orphans into their homes, but at present home-based, community-supported care of orphans is exacerbating the poverty of many households. The challenge to find a solution that matches the scale and longevity of the situation still remains.

*Names of orphans and parents have been changed to protect their privacy.

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