Tom’s story – a Zimbabwean AIDS orphan at the turn of the century


In Zimbabwe at the end of the 20th century, it was estimated that nearly one in five children had lost a parent to AIDS. Often it was just a question of time before the other parent died. Some experts were expressing the fear that within a few years, half of Zimbabwe’s children could be orphans. Tom was one of them.

Original broadcast: November 30, 1999


GdS: You’re listening to A Good Life from Radio Netherlands. I’m Ginger da Silva. Today on A Good Life, we take a personal look at a problem that is having a devastating effect on development in many parts of the world. I guess problem is not the right word. It’s a disease, AIDS, a pandemic. This week marks International AIDS Day and Eric Beauchemin prepared this week’s documentary for Radio Netherlands on child-headed households and children who have lost their parents to AIDS. While he was gathering material in Zimbabwe, he heard one story that particularly struck him, and I invited Eric into studio to tell us about it. Eric, welcome.

EB: Thank you, Ginger.

GdS: Eric, you met a boy, 18 years old. Tell us about him.

EB: I wanted to meet children like Tom, children who had lost their parents to AIDS. Tom’s mother, when he was 10 years old, had left, and had left behind Tom’s father, his sister and Tom. I went to go and see Tom’s house, but I really didn’t have time to speak to him at that moment, so I said, can I come back to speak to you on Saturday? And he said, fine, fine. So I went to the school where he was studying. We sat outside because all the classrooms were full and I asked him: tell your story. From the very beginning? And I said, yes, and for one hour Tom talked.

When I was in Form 2, he started to have health problems. That was in 1997. He had herpes zoster at the side of the left cheek. That’s like a rash. He was treated for that. But his body started to slim. He was no longer working. He was not doing part-time jobs, carpentry work or repairing roofs of houses of people. We lived in one room. The room was so small. It was made of cardboard and it leaked. If the rain comes, the water would come in and we would just take shelter in a corner. We did not have a bed or anything. We just cooked on the floor and slept on the floor. We had only two blankets. When I was in the first term of Form 3, he started to suffer from TB. At that time he did not pay my school fees for the first term. When we were towards the opening of the second school term, he was now serious. He spent most of his days sleeping. I did not go to school, but my sister was going. I just stayed at home and looked after him. We did not have anything to eat. So there was a woman who was his friend. I went to talk to her and for the first term, she was giving us food, but as time went on, when we asked for food, she said many things about our father. She said that at times, our father was accusing her of being a witch. And she stopped giving us food. I just looked for food and gave it to him. I was no longer going to school.

GdS: It’s clear that Tom’s family was very poor to start with, and one the one earner in the family can no longer earn money, it has a devastating effect, doesn’t it Eric?

EB: Yeah, and this is what often happens when the parents get AIDS. You see that the father is generally the first one to become ill, and then the mother. What happens frequently is that the mother will first take care of the father and then when she becomes sick, one of the children has to drop out of school.. Tom’s case is a bit different from most cases because he’s a boy and generally it would be the girl who would take care of the sick parent. But since Tom is four years older than his sister, he’s the one who took care of her.

In June he became serious. He was no longer talking our language, Shona. What he speaks was a language I had never heard. He went to Nazareth Hospital. He was given pills to drink for six months, but he did not finish the treatment because he developed a stroke on the right side. He did not stand up when he went to the toilet or do anything. He just urinated and defecated on the blanket. My sister, she ran away to live with other people. I was no longer sleeping in that house because it was smelling very badly. I came in the morning, fed him. I would take him out of the house, put him in the sunshine and he would spend the whole day lying in the sunshine. And in the evening, I would help him to stand up and walk into the house and he slept. On June 17th, he was no longer talking or saying anything. He just…he was no longer doing anything or saying anything. He was no longer talking that language he used to speak. So I went to the clinic and told the nurses. They summoned an ambulance from Harare Hospital. It came and they told me that we had to pay the ambulance fee. But I told them that we did not have relatives, and I was the eldest child. I was not working. But they said the ambulance fees are paid by all people, even if you are not working or you’re hardly earning anything. They wrote a receipt and we went to Harare Hospital.

GdS: It’s a tremendous responsibility for a child and also just to negotiate the health care system, to the extent that there is health care available people at this economic level.

EB: Yeah, Zimbabwe is one of the countries that is going through structural adjustment, and as a result, people have to pay for every single type of medical service, including drugs. What’s happening as a result of the AIDS epidemic – 25% of the population is infected with HIV – and as a result, the medical system simply can’t cope. 60 to 70% of the beds at the moment in Zimbabwe are occupied by people with HIV or AIDS. So what the Zimbabwean authorities are trying to do is to promote home-based care. In other words, people stay at home as long as they possibly can. But this places an enormous burden, particularly when it’s children who are taking care of their parents. This is what was happening in Tom’s case. And yes, it is extremely difficult to negotiate this, particularly when you don’t have any money. And Tom is going to go into more detail now, but you also have to realise that he talks about dollars. There are 40 Zim dollars to 1 US dollar, just to give you a general idea of the figures he’s talking about.

My father did not have an ID card. I didn’t know where he put it or if it was lost. When we arrived at the hospital, they asked me for his ID card. I did not have it. So there was a man living in our area. He asked me where my father was from, his origin. And I told him that he came from Zambia. And we went to Zambia High Commission on Union Avenue in the city. I told them about my problem. So they wanted his passport pictures and the ID card, but he did not have the ID card. So I had to find the ID card. I went to Harare Market Square where the registration is. And I told them to look for the ID number of my father. And it was found. They said he got his ID card in Chiredzi and I was supposed to go there. I did not have the money or anything. We found another worker there at Market Square. He told me if I wanted the ID card without going to Chiredzi, he needed 1000 dollars. But I did not have the 1000 dollars. I went to the place where the ID cards are made. And I told him that my father was at Harare Hospital. He was no longer talking or walking, so his ID card was wanted. I spent about two weeks going to that place. I remember I just went there by bus twice. Most of the time I went on foot to that place and to Harare Hospital. It’s approximately 15 kilometres. I went on foot every day in the morning and came back towards the evening. The ID card was nowhere to be found. They wanted 50 dollars to make an ID card. So I had to borrow 50 dollars. That was on June 23rd when I went to the place where they make the ID cards, and they gave me one for my father. On the ID card, it was written that he was born in Mukabwe in Zambia. There was one thing left: the passport photographs. He did not have them. They were costing 25 dollars. On that day, June 23rd, he was discharged from Harare Hospital, but he did not walk or speak. He just stared at people without saying anything. I don’t know why they discharged him. They said he was to come on Tuesdays for exercises. In buses and omnibuses they don’t want people who are ill to board. I told the people at the hospital that I was the only one looking after him and I did not have money to bring him every Tuesday. But they said nothing. The nurses told me that this bed he was sleeping on was now for another person who was going to come. I only had three dollars. So I went home and talked to a woman who my father claimed was his sister. But she was not his sister. She just came from Zambia. She gave me 70 dollars, so I hired a taxi at Harare Hospital. It cost 60 dollars from Harare Hospital to our residence in Budiriro. When I brought him home, I was not finding the passport photographs. It took me several days to get the 25 dollars for the pictures. He was photographed and we got the pictures. On Monday, July 6th, that was the day I was supposed to go to the Zambian High Commission with the photographs and his ID card. In the morning, when I woke up, I went to look at him. And he was breathing heavily. It was around past 7. He was breathing heavily. I went to take a bath, but when I come back, he was no longer breathing. He was dead. So that means I was no longer going to the Zambian High Commission.

GdS: Eric, Tom seems so articulate and so resourceful. It must have been an enormous strain on him. What happens now? What happens when a parent dies?

EB: It was an enormous strain. You have to realise that this kid was 16 years old when all of this was happening. And walking 15 kilometres to and back every single day for two weeks, three weeks, it’s just…for somebody living in a developed country, it’s completely unimaginable. In Tom’s case, he had absolutely nothing. You heard, he was struggling to get 25 Zim dollars, which is 50 US cents to get pictures. So obviously he didn’t have the money to bury his father or anything else. So some of the neighbors – they weren’t giving him much support – but some of the neighbours when they found out that his father had died, they went to Zanu-PF, which is the ruling party. They went to speak to the mayor of Harare, the capital, and they asked if he would give some money to bury Tom’s father.

I took his ID card and went to Budiriro police station and told them. I told our neighbours. Some donated money for the corpse to be taken to Harare Hospital mortuary. The transport was found and his body was taken to Harare Central Hospital. Some people in that area who are ZANU PF, they went to see the mayor of Harare who gave them money to buy the coffin. There was no ceremony at our house, but my father was dead, so I just spent most of the days sitting at home. There were no people coming. We just stayed at our home. When the money for the coffin came, we were given a little free burial place at Grandview Cemetery. We went to Harare Hospital and I signed some forms. Then we went to Grandview Cemetery to register for the grave. On July 10th, we were given a small car, an open truck, which only accommodated 10 people and the coffin. So, my sister and I and other people, we just, we went to Grandview Cemetery and buried his body. And then we came back home.

When my father was sick, I was thinking he was going to recover because I had heard that if you have TB and take pills for some months, you will be OK. So I was thinking he was going to be alright. But when I went to Harare Hospital, the doctors told me that it was the TB that made him have a stroke. And he was placed in the ward with people with TB. I was totally confused. I did not know what to do. I just stayed at home, in the house in the afternoon. I stayed outside with him. I was not thinking of anything. I was totally confused. I was not thinking of my future or what was going to happen or anything. I was thinking that I was going to go back to school and continue with my education after he had recovered. But when I saw that he was now going to die, I thought of finding my mother, but I did not know where to start.

GdS: After spending so long caring for his father, Tom must have had a terrible time trying to figure out how to go on with his life. Was there no one there, no organisation, no one to give him support?

EB: Well, Tom lives in a high density area outside of Harare. High density areas are what used to be known as townships. In these townships you have small clinics, and when social workers at the clinic found out about Tom and his sister, they put him in touch with an organisation called Mashambanzou. Mashambanzou means in the Shona language “dawn of a new day”. Mashambanzou is an organisation which is trying to help society cope with the epidemic. They have a hospice service. They try to provide some type of employment to people with HIV and AIDS, and they’re also doing a lot of work with AIDS orphans. They’re assisting around 1500 kids. In Harare alone, there are about 100,000 AIDS orphans, so it’s not even 2 percent of the AIDS orphans in the capital.

The people at Mashambanzou came to see my house. It had big gaps in it. The roofing was roughly made. When it rained, it was as if you were outside. They took photographs of the house which I was living in and went with the pictures to Mashambanzou. They made arrangements to build a cabin for me and my sister. On the closing day of the term, they bought the two cabins in which we are now living. That day I did not go to school. They came and collected me with my goods: some blankets, a stove, some plates, one pot and a few clothes. When I moved, they also bought beds for us, and blankets and other plates. For the first days, I was living alone in the cabin. The people who were taking care of my sister, they refused to let her live with me. They said she was too young and it was going to be difficult for me to control her. So they want to control her themselves. But at the house where she was living, the parents they did not have girls. They were all boys there, 9 boys. She was the youngest child in that family. She had to do most of the work. She came to me complaining about food. She went to school without eating. But I told her I had nothing, so she should just continue living there, until we find some way to live. She continued to live in that state, but she wanted to live with me. The people of Mashambanzou went to talk with them, and they released her. We started to live together. The people of Mashambanzou started to bring us food. We are given 20 kilos at the start of every month, but it’s not enough. So at the end of the month, we have to borrow mealie-meal from our neighbours. But they want their mealie-meal back and the other things like cooking oil. If they say that they don’t have anything to give us, we just go to sleep without putting anything in our mouths. We have problems with rats too. They come. I think they eat at least 2 kilos of food. At night, when I am sleeping, they come and eat the mealie-meal or the matimba or the vegetables. So our mealie-meal it just lasts for two or three weeks. Mashambanzou gave us some things for a mini-market like maputi and soap. But the rats ate those things also. I think the rats ate half the packet of maputi. They also ate the soap, when they found nothing to eat. We couldn’t make a profit. We gave things to some people on credit, but they did not repay us. We just kept quiet, we did not ask them about the money. If they gave a little, we just kept quiet.

GdS: Eric, you saw his house. He calls it a cabin. What was it like?

EB: Yes, he calls it a cabin. It reminded me actually of the outhouse of my great, great aunt in Brittany in western France, in a very rural area. It’s a black, wooden structure made out of wood. It’s got a corrugated iron roof. There are two outhouses or cabins next to each other: one for Tom and one for his sister. It’s about 2 metres long, and about 1.5 metres wide. I first went into Tom’s cabin. He had stuck some rags to block the holes between the corrugated iron roof and the planks of wood. And then we went into his sister’s cabin, and these three huge white rats, the size of my forearm, they went scampering up the wall and went outside. It was just horrible.

GdS: He spoke about the rats and how they eat the food that they have been given by the organisation.

EB: Not only the food, even the soap when they get hungry.

GdS: It’s so difficult. I mean he describes his neighbours giving him some things but being a bit reluctant to, and it sounds a bit like people are mean but everybody around him must be in similar dire straights.

EB: Well, perhaps not as bad as he, but on the other hand, poverty is enormous in the country. 60 or 70% of the population is living under the poverty line, so obviously people don’t have much to spare. I think what also comes out in this story is the sheer defenceless of these children. They have to make do with people are willing to give them and the ways in which people are willing to help them. Tom seems to be quite fortunate because many of these children – because they have no adults to protect them – they’re open to sexual abuse. They’re open to all types of abuse and they really have no one to turn to, no one who can protect them. It’s a really terrible situation.

My sister she goes to do part-time work when she’s not going to school. A woman who owns a shop told my sister to come and help her. This past holiday, she went there, and she worked for the whole month, but the woman did not give her anything. She just gave her things like tomatoes and drinks in the morning and again in the evening when she’s coming back home. My sister refuses to go to school if she doesn’t eat. But I go even if I have had nothing to eat. My sister, she blames me for that. I have tried to explain things to her, how things are going on, but she doesn’t understand. I don’t know why. Maybe she is going to understand some day. She refuses to go to church on Sundays. She says she doesn’t have clothes. Her friends have many clothes, so every Sunday, they will go to church with other clothes. There are some times when they do civic days at their school. The pupils go to school with regular clothes, not in uniform. She doesn’t want to go with clothes that she has gone with in the past. She wants other clothes. So it is a problem. I don’t know what I can do about it or how I can tell her about it. Maybe she doesn’t see how we are living, but I just leave it like that. I usually cook, but when I myself want to read, at times, she refuses to cook, so it disturbs my studies. And the other thing is that I use paraffin lamps. If I don’t have paraffin, I do not read. It is a problem that one. I do not read. But some people with electricity, they will be reading. But when I go to school, my performance will be terribly behind standard. My friends, they will be expecting me to be better. I try to read in the afternoon, so that if I do not have paraffin, I can do better at school. When I am not at school, I spend most of the time in my house because I don’t basically socialise with people. I just sit alone in our house. I have no stories to speak with my sister. If she’s also at home, she just sleeps in her own house, and I sleep or read in my own house. The only friends I have are at school. I have only been to see them a few times at their homes. The other thing: when I am with my friends, they just talk of stories they heard on television or radio. If they start to talk about stories they heard on TV and radios, I just leave them. Sometimes they say something that I do not know, that they’ve read from newspapers or somewhere. I do not read a newspaper. I have nowhere to find it, or to listen to a radio, or to see something in a television. We don’t have anything like that. I feel lonely, in solitude.

Nowadays, I am no longer going to church because I am studying. But when I was going to church on Sundays, I did not want to go by myself, because I have only three trousers: the one I am coming to school with, and this one that I am putting on now and one pair of jeans. We have few clothes, and if you do not have soap, you will not have anything to put on. If we want to go somewhere, we can’t. We just stay in our rooms. We told Mashambanzou, but at times they will not have the things. And if the clothes come, there are not enough and they are often too small for me.

GdS: It sounds like a very lonely life for Tom, Eric. Are most AIDS orphans in the same situation?

EB: Fortunately in Zimbabwe, like in many parts of Africa, you have the extended family. The extended family are the aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, grandparents. They form a structure and provide a type of safety net because the government doesn’t provide that.

GdS: That’s what AIDS is making a huge gap in.

EB: That’s right. In the past, if you had orphans, they would be taken in by the extended family. But now, because so many people are dying and getting sick because of AIDS, the extended family is coming under increasing strain, and more and more children are finding themselves in the same situation as Tom. They have absolutely no one to care for them.

GdS: And what strikes me also is how difficult it is for Tom to go to school. He is very lucky to have Mashambanzou to help him with school fees, but the kids in Zimbabwe have to pay to go to school, don’t they?

EB: Yeah, there are school fees. There are school levies to maintain the buildings. They also have to buy uniforms. So it’s an enormous drain on the family income, and when I was out in the rural areas, for example, I saw grandmothers who were taking care of 6 or 7 orphans. And there’s simply no way in the world that they can pay school fees for all these children. As a result, what’s going to happen more and more in future is that children are not going to be going to school. But Tom is going to school. He’s doing his O levels and he hopes to go on to his A levels and perhaps even to university. Obviously he’s a very bright kid. What really struck me during the interview is that Tom, for 5 or 10 minutes, he was talking ab out children who were in situations that were even worse than his. That seems very difficult to imagine, but he was saying that Mashambanzou was having a lot of trouble providing food and clothing to these children. But they were fortunate. There were a lot of children who were receiving no assistance whatsoever, and Tom was worried what was going to happen to those children.

I want to know if Mashambanzou has some children whom they took care of who are now old. I do not know. I want to hear about that, but I have never asked them. I want to know what happens when they finish their education, where they go and what they do in future. Myself, I’ve no relatives or anyone who is working. Now in Zimbabwe, there is corruption and nepotism in the industries. It is very difficult for me to get a job. And if I fail, it is also a problem. I don’t know if they will allow me to repeat. I am not saying that I will fail [laugh] but I am talking about other children. If we fail, people like me who are doing our O levels, if we fail, what are we going to do in the future? A person will be expecting something better in future, because when we were growing up, we were facing many problems. But if we fail our O levels, I don’t know if the people of Mashambanzou will just leave us and we will have to start looking out for ourselves. If they do, we will continue to suffer. We will continue to live a life that is not what we are expecting. If I fail my O levels, it will be very, very difficult for me to do anything. I will just stay at home and do nothing and then a cycle of poverty is going to be created. As a result, we will continue suffering, even after we finish school. We will continue to suffer. Now we are young and we are being looked after, but when we get older, life is going to be even harder.

GdS: I guess that says it all. Tom’s very realistic look at his own life. Tom from Zimbabwe. His voice was read by Turan Ali. There are an estimated 10 million AIDS orphans in Africa, and the problem is only growing. Eric I want to thank you for joining me in studio and sharing Tom’s story with us.

EB: You’re welcome.

GdS: Thanks also to technician Robert Gieselbach. A Good Life will be back again in 7 days. I hope you’ll be there too. Until then, take care.