Swazi orphans shoulder Aids burden

How does it feel to be an orphan in a country where by tradition there are no orphans?

“I am lonely, but I have my sister. If not for my sister, I would be all alone,” says nine-year-old Themba, who with his 13-year-old sister Monica lives in a child-headed household in rural Luve, 40km north of the central urban centre of Manzini.

“We live on food parcels from the Red Cross. There are beans and maize meal, and candles and toothpaste and soap,” he reports.

Themba and his sister have to maintain the compound of three mud and thatch huts where they live.
Water comes from a stream, a kilometre away.

“The nurse at the clinic said we must boil the water before we drink, but we are too tired,” he says.

Until recently, Swaziland was a kingdom of extended families that looked after all their members. If a parent should die, a child’s needs would always be met by other relatives. Indeed, most families were polygamous, like King Mswati’s household where 11 queens serve him. A child might be raised by the senior wife, rather than a biological mother.

“The extended family has completely broken down today. There is no place for orphans,” says Dr Martin Weber of the International Red Cross’s Swaziland branch.

Nearly 40% of the adult population is HIV-positive, the result of a struggling healthcare system, and Swazis’ deep-rooted denial of the seriousness of the disease. It is taboo for a Swazi to admit to being HIV-positive, and because so many people are—up to half of young men and women in their twenties—the spread of the preventable disease has been out of control.

“The result has been parents dying of Aids, and leaving children behind, although [the number of] deaths of children under five years old attributed to Aids has grown alarmingly because of mother-to-child transmission of HIV,” says Weber.

The national emergency response committee on HIV/Aids predicts that by 2010, there will be 120 000 orphans in a population of less than 900 000 people.

With parents gone, many children are left at home with only grandparents. The young and old generations are unable to do the work a farm requires to raise enough crops on which to survive.

“First the father and then the mother dies of Aids. We have more child-headed households in the rural lands. The grannies may survive, but they cannot work the fields. The older children drop out of school, but they are not able to farm as well as adults,” says Albertina Nyatsi of the Swaziland Aids Support Organisation.

“Food shortages in Swaziland are compounded by the country’s high HIV/Aids adult prevalence rate. And it is, therefore, essential that the special nutritional needs of vulnerable people like orphans are met,” says Angela van Rynbach, World Food Programme (WFP) country representative.

Adds Sarah Laughton, WFP emergency coordinator in Swaziland: “I think it’s clear to everybody by now that you can’t separate food from Aids, especially when we consider children and orphans.”

No Swazi child has reported to have starved during the past five years of declining harvests.

This is because Swazi society is tightly knit, and neighbours know the situation in each of their area’s farms, even if they may be unable to offer assistance because their own meagre labour skills and resources are inadequate. But aid workers are directed to homesteads where children may be living on their own.

Bongani Mduli is 17 years old, and looks after two young brothers, Sempiwe (16) and Justin (12). Their father died of Aids in 2001. Their mother died last year, also of an Aids-related illness.

The boys occupy a one-room shack in an “informal settlement” in the central commercial town of Manzini. Their stove is a gas canister in one corner. There is no electricity, or heating. Temperatures during the Swazi winter nights can drop to freezing, but it is not a good idea to build a fire inside a hut with a grass roof.

There is no toilet or running water. Digging a 3m-deep pit latrine in the yard seems beyond the boys’ capabilities. Water is fetched in jugs from a stream half a kilometre away. After the cloudy water settles in a container for some hours, a muddy residue coats the bottom.

Bongani is a household head before his time, and he has had to grow up quickly to become responsible. His life is not without hope, thanks to his recent return to school.

“I had to leave school when the money ran out. Fortunately, an organisation has paid our school fees. We don’t have shoes, but we can go without shoes,” Bongani said.

Unable to tend their fields because, like most children their age, they must devote most of their time to their studies, Bongani’s family of little boys depends on food aid from the WFP. His younger brothers cherish the role the eldest boy plays in keeping what remains of the family together.

“My brother has done so much, and I don’t know how I can ever repay his kindness. He makes sure that we have something to eat everyday, even if it is a little,” said Sempiwe.

“In Swaziland, you talk to children, and they point to a school. ‘I went there, but now there is no money for school fees.’ They aren’t doing anything. From where I’ve worked in other places, I’ve seen it happen. The orphans will go to towns. Without schooling completed they will hang around, and get criminalised,” says Weber.

Social welfare organisations providing assistance for orphaned children are looking beyond food relief, to meeting the totality of children’s needs to keep them within society. This includes their medical and educational needs, with programmes to address work skills on the horizon.—IPS

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