Children of the plague in Zimbabwe

AIDS orphan
AIDS orphan (© Eric Beauchemin)

In 1999, Zimbabwe continued to be one of the countries that was seeing the worst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Hundreds of thousands of children had lost their parents to the pandemic, and more and more children were having to raise their younger brothers and sisters on their own. To mark World AIDS Day, they and their relatives talk about the devastating consequences the epidemic is having on their lives.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: December 1, 1999


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents, “Children of the Plague”. The program is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

There are at least 800,000 orphans in Zimbabwe, nearly a quarter of the children are orphaned. The children are the future. If they don’t get educated, if they are stunted because they’re not getting proper nutrition, then you’ve got a generation which is not going to function as full members of society.

The Katsora family gathers in the Lewewe Cemetary on the outskirts of Bulawayo in western Zimbabwe, to mourn the death of their son, brother, lover, father. 28 years old…killed by IT, the euphemism in Zimbabwe for AIDS. Edmos Katsora was one of the 2-thousand-five-hundred people who died of the disease in the past week. Two-and-a-half thousand people die week in, week out. And this is but the beginning. A quarter of adult Zimbabweans is infected with the HIV virus. More and more are dying, and they’re leaving children behind.

She says yeah she did look after her mother until she passed away, but she doesn’t remember for how before she died. EB: What did you feel? What did you think you were going to do next? She’s saying she was really hurt, she was pained when the mother passed away. But there was nothing she could do. She just had to accept it that they are left as orphans. They don’t have parents.

Nomsa is 13 years old. Her father died about 5 years ago. Nomsa doesn’t really remember how. Last year, her mother died of AIDS-related tuberculosis, a fact Nomsa and her 4 younger brothers and sisters are constantly being reminded of by some of her relatives who live next door.

She’s saying she has an aunt, that’s the sister to her mother, the late mother. But the aunt doesn’t treat her well. At times, she calls them a lot of names, lots of insults. So, it’s not easy. EB: Why type of insults, and why are they insulting her? She’s saying that the aunt always grumbles and complains and says it was because of the coming of these kids that this place is now filthy. And she scolds them, telling them, remind them, of their parents, that this is not your place. I’m not the one who killed your mother and the like.

Nomsa and her siblings live in a miserable-looking wooden shack, 3 meters by 3 meters. Light pierces the cracks in the black wooden planks and the corrugated iron roof. Besides a big bed, there isn’t much else to fill the room except gloom and squalor.

EB: Nomsa, you’re 13 years old. Do you cook for your brothers and sisters? Yes. Who taught you how to cook? She’s saying she has a relative here, but she’s not working, and at times they run out of food. Once in a while, she does assist when she gets some little cash, she does assist them, but the situation is not that good. EB: You go to school. Do you like going to school? Yeah. EB: Are you a good student? At the moment, she’s doing Grade 1. And she doesn’t know when she started going to school, but she has interest in going to school. Grade 1. EB: How old are normal students when they go to Grade 1? It’s 6 years old. EB: And she’s 13. Yes. EB: So, she’s far, far behind. Far, far behind. EB: You said that your aunt insults you a lot. Does anyone physically abuse you or your brothers and sisters? What she’s saying is that she doesn’t have problems with the young sisters and brothers. But there is a problem. There’s another relative who says some funny words, and she always insults them and makes it a point that they know their situation. And she tells them, you are going to leave this place and the like. All sorts of bad things, reminding these kids of their situation. EB: So how do you see your future? She doesn’t know.

Nomsa and her younger siblings are among the estimated 800-thousand children in Zimbabwe who’ve become orphans as a result of the AIDS epidemic. The number of orphans is increasing rapidly as more and more parents die. Entire families are being decimated by the disease.

My name is Victoria Msaroro. I’m 26 years old. In 1993 when I was sick and I was tested. I has HIV positive. So I’m just living like that. My father and my mother died in 1993. They were all HIV positive. And my young sister died in 1994. He was HIV positive also. EB: Your husband, is he also sick? No, my husband is not tested. EB: But do you think that he is sick also? He thinks we are all HIV-positive. EB: Do you have children also? Yes. I’ve got one child. He was born in 1990. He is doing Grade 1. And I’ve got another child in 1996. The doctor said he was HIV positive. He was 9 months old. EB: He’s dead? Yes. EB: Oh, he died of AIDS? He did. EB: Are you worried about what is going to happen later on? I don’t know. God knows.

Victoria has no idea what will happen to her son when both she and her husband die. One of her five brothers is likely to take the child in, but Victoria hasn’t discussed that possibility with them. She’s afraid to tell any of her relatives because of the stigma attached to the disease. She fears rejection and believes that her son too would be ostracized.

News travels fast, particularly in high-density areas like this one on the outskirts of Harare. 3 years ago, Winnie’s husband died of AIDS, leaving her to raise their 4 children. Winnie’s brother is mentally ill, and when his wife died of AIDS, Winnie had to take in their two children. She lives in a tiny shack with two rooms. She’s now struggling to look after the six children with the pittance she earns from selling vegetables on the road side. Winnie, who’s 32 years old, suspects she too might be HIV positive.

She might also get sick and die, and she’s afraid of leaving the kids on their own. So she would want to stay alive as long as possible to look after these six. People around here instead of giving her advice, they accuse her of being responsible for the death of her husband. She feels that she is still too young to be facing such problems, and sometimes she asks God why this has happened to her. EB: What is God’s answer? She said when she’s depressed, sometimes she just asks those questions without expecting replies. At one point, she was even admitted to Harare Hospital with a mental problem because she had just too much in her head. EB: Do her children face problems also? Her children tend to see anyone moving in the streets as their father because they don’t have a male figure within the home. When they are playing with other kids and if something happens, sometimes they are said this is why you don’t have a father. And this is why you call our fathers your father. EB: So when this happens, do her children come to her and ask her for advice or ask what to do or come crying? What happens? Sometimes she hears them saying those words. Sometimes they don’t need to come and tell her, but when she hears them saying those words, she calls them up and brings them in here. Then they just stay in here. The biggest problem is with this young boy who is very sensitive when it comes to the male figure within this place. When such things are said, sometimes he cries and comes to the mother. EB: Winnie, it sounds like the world is against you. Yes, it looks like nobody loves me. And if I have a problem, I have to tackle it on my own. If something were to happen to you, do you have relatives who could take care of the children, of the orphans? There’s no one who can look after her kids. And she said, if she were to die today, she would expect the State to look after her kids because there’s no one who can look after them. EB: Do you think the State would do that? There’s nothing that I can do, because that’s the only option that I have.

Those adults who are alive today have got a challenge. The children are our future. But what quality of life are we giving them? That is really a challenge.

Nellie Dhlembeu is the deputy director of Zimbabwe’s Department of Social Welfare. She’s responsible for children in very difficult circumstances, like the AIDS orphans.

We have come up with what we call our National Orphan Care Policy, where everybody is challenged to do something about the children. Which means that wherever you are, whoever you are, if you see a child and you think the child has got problems, you must do something about it. But it is not all of us who have the material resources to help. You can refer as well, so that government can do something about it. And I know that there are areas where we have not reached and where the communities are not yet organized. The task is quite a mammoth task, and we need to go out full swing.

But few Zimbabweans think their government is up to this or any other challenge. The government has yet to declare AIDS a national disaster and re-allocate funds to deal with the mounting social and human catastrophe. Instead, President Robert Mugabe’s government is spending millions of dollars a month supporting a highly unpopular war in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Corruption has become so widespread that an authoritative Zimbabwean legal publication recently described Zimbabwe as a racketeering state.

It’s Saturday afternoon in the centre of Bulawayo in western Zimbabwe. The shops are closed and the streets virtually deserted, but a blind man plows through his repertoire of Hank Williams’ ballads, hoping for a few coins. Most passersby don’t have anything to spare nowadays.

When Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, about 30% of the population lived below the poverty line. The figure has now more than doubled. 1 in 2 people is unemployed. AIDS is only exacerbating the situation. Because of the absence of a government safety net, in times of difficulty Zimbabweans traditionally turn to their extended family – everyone from parents and grandparents to aunts, uncles and cousins, even once or twice removed. But AIDS and the collapse of the economy are fraying this family support system, says Effie Malianga of UNICEF.

Generally in Zimbabwe, the economic situation is getting worse and worse. And the people who are expected to look after the orphans are finding it very difficult to take on the orphans, but there is no alternative. They have to take in the orphans. So people are suffering with the orphans in their households, and the burden is a bit too much for some of them. So we are afraid that we might get to a situation where we might experience burnout.

“The crisis”, as Effie Malianga describes it, is being felt most acutely in the rural areas. Stanley Mashizha is working 120 kilometers northwest of Harare. He belongs to a local charity, called Tsungirirai, which means persevere, have courage.

We found most of the people from this side, they work in towns near to this area. When they get sick, they come down here into the rural area. And the most appalling thing that they don’t usually talk to their parents about their HIV status. So sometimes if you talk to the parents, they don’t know really that HIV/AIDS is really destroying and killing their daughters and sons. EB: So what happens then is that the daughters and sons, they go to the big cities to go find work, to go find some money, and then when they get sick, they come back here basically to die. Yes. Mostly that is our culture. We believe that if somebody is sick, he needs the mother’s care. So where do you get your mother? From the rural area. EB: How many families are you actually assisting in this area? Around 272 children. EB: And if you look at the actual need, are there many more families that would need assistance? Really, it is because you can find that the population of this area, it’s about 199,000. 55% of the population are the orphans. So you see that there’s a lot of families to be assisted really. But we know that sometimes in another family, there’s a granny, but that granny has some sons who are assisting them. But I think 45% of the grannies, they have nobody who is actually assist them.

One of the grannies or grandmothers who’s not receiving any assistance is Akwilen. 4 years ago, her husband died, probably of AIDS, but then no one gets tested out here. One of her brothers died of AIDS, and one of her sisters is now sick. Her other four brothers and sisters look healthy, but then with this disease, she says, you never know. Akwilen’s son also died of AIDS. Now she’s raising his three children on her own in Mondoro on what are known as communal lands, where poor peasant farmers live and farm.

We work on the communal lands, but you know, here in Mondoro, there was too much rain. Some other years, yes, we sell maize, ground nuts. But this year we got nothing. We got nothing so we are doing nothing. EB: So how are you surviving at the moment? At the moment, I am surviving on selling some vegetables, just little vegetables and tomatoes in my garden. But you know, I can’t get much. EB: Do you have enough money to feed your family? Just a little bit. Sometimes we just sleep eating porridge. To survive you can take a little to survive, not much. But the problem is the school fees and the school uniforms. That’s the real problem. I can’t. They’re always in and out of school. You know, the masters, they need their school fees, and there are some building funds and uniforms. I can’t raise that money doing nothing here in the communal lands like this. I’ve got nothing. We are poor, I think you can see [laughter], you can see. So it’s the problem.

Some communities are taking the initiative themselves to help grandmothers like Akwilen to shoulder the burden of caring for orphans. Effie Malianga of UNICEF again.

In some cases, the traditional leadership has come up with what we call sunderamambo which is a communal plot of land where the communities will go and plow and the proceeds from this piece of land is shared and used for the orphans. EB: But if 70% of Zimbabwe’s population are living under the poverty level, isn’t it a bit much to expect communities to respond to these needs of these orphans. We might think it’s expecting too much, but I think we feel it’s part of the Zimbabwean culture where actually even when we are poor, you actually share the little you have got with the neighbor.

But the growing number of orphans is likely to tax even the most generous communities, particularly as Zimbabwe’s economy continues to spiral downwards. Already, there are communities and families which have hit rock bottom. The Tsungirirai Foundation has opened a centre in the town of Norton, about 40 kilometres north of Harare, for some of these AIDS orphans. Sarah is the matron or housekeeper.

These children are from the surrounding area. Most of them are so poor that they can’t manage to feed them or get them dressed. EB: How old are these children? We’ve got different ages: 5 years up to 13 we’ve got them here. EB: And what exactly do you do with these children during the day? During the day, most of them get some lessons, like the pre-school, they do games, activities and other things. The bigger ones go to school. EB: How long do they stay here at the centre?

? They stay from 9 o’clock up to 1 p.m. and then they go home. They go home for the night. EB: And what is the goal? To prepare them for school? Or what is the goal, overall goal of the project here? We want to help them so that they can do something which can help them later, like some will be trained to do carpentry. Some will be trained to do sewing, other things that can help them to get money so that they can help them as they grow up. EB: And also help the rest of their family. Affirmative.

In cities like Harare efforts are also being made to assist the AIDS orphans. In one of the poor high-density areas, near Harare, a trust called Mashambanzou – which means Dawn of a New Day – runs a day care centre for orphans. As the children were getting up after their afternoon nap, Dorothy Barbara Abdul told me about the centre.

We take them from 2.5 to 6 years old. What we do with the children: we get them here at 7 o’clock, Monday to Friday. First of all, when they come in in the morning, we have their prayers and we give them porridge. After porridge, we check them. Those that are not clean, they’re dirty and their clothes are not washed and everything, we take them up and put them in the bathroom and wash them. And we take their dirty clothes and have them washed and ironed in this place. And at 10 o’clock they have their tea. After tea, they go up to the classes.

We actually basically teach them the pre-school. And when they’ve matured enough to go to school, we try and find places for them in schools. We make sure they’ve got uniforms and their school fees are paid for because they are not actually living with parents. So what we do is we try to help the extended family not to have the burden on them but to try and help them so that they can also take the responsibility without a lot of problems on top of it because as they are most of these children are from poor families. EB: Some of these children’s parents have actually died of AIDS, haven’t they? Yes, because there are so many. The epidemic…I can’t explain how big it is. It’s huge, and because of that, we make sure that the ones that are really, really, really needing help are the ones that we take. EB: Obviously the love that you give them is very important. But also one of the other important factors is nutrition. I mean you’re giving them good nutrition. This is a very poor neighborhood. If they were not coming here, they would be very poorly nourished and they would be more susceptible to disease. Because usually, most of the children, when we take them here, they are so bad. They’ve got sores, their weight is out, but when they come here, after feeding them, in a month, they look changed. It’s because the children have no people to look after them.

The day-care centre is part of a much larger project to help people with HIV and AIDS, their relatives and their children to cope with the consequences of the disease. Mashambanzou, says Pat Bailey, has a variety of teams that carry out home visits to families affected by AIDS in and around Harare.

When they find the patient, they find them in great distress. They’ve usually been sick for some time. They’ve fallen out of work. There’s no income coming into the house. So apart from being really sick, the family are all starving because of the economic situation of our country. We also have an orphan outreach team and they look after the orphans that the home-based care team encounter. They assess their needs and take care of their school fees, school levies, uniforms, shoes and we give them a monthly food allowance.

15-year-old Edmore is one of the 15-hundred orphans Mashambanzou is assisting. Edmore is what’s known as a child-headed household. Six years ago, Edmore’s father died. Three years later, when Edmore was 13, his mother also died of AIDS. Edmore has no relatives at all, so he was left with the burden of raising his 10-year-old brother Dave and his 8-year-old sister Brenda. When I arrived, Brenda, who’s now 11, was cleaning their one-room dwelling.

EB: The room in which the three of you live is very, very small. It’s about 2.5 metres wide by about 4 metres long or 3 metres actually. And there’s only one bed here for the three of you. Right? All three of you sleep in this bed? It is only me who sleep on this bed. My brother at night he wets, so sleeps on the floor and my sister as well. She also sleeps on the floor. Yes. EB: And besides that, in this room you have a small stove, a paraffin stove? Yes we’ve got only paraffin stove and a pushing tray. EB: And then you’ve got a small little table here. And a fairly big cupboard here. And you also have electricity here. Yes, electricity is here. Is it a bit difficult in the evening for example when you want to study because there’s so little room. It is difficult for me to study or even to write my notes when we are assigned some notes at school. I’m not able to do that at night. EB: Can you do it during the day? During the day, I can do it, but I’ve not enough time to do that, because I will be the cleaning the house and preparing lunch. EB: So do you have any time for yourself? I’ve got little time for me to do other things which I want.

Edmore says he’d like to go out with his friends and play soccer. But he never has time for any of that. Edmore’s parents left the children a small property which has been subdivided and is being rented by 7 families. Edmore often turns to his lodgers for advice, but lodgers and other adults, says Pat Bailey, often take advantage of these vulnerable children.

In Zimbambwe our children are being abused at the rate of 1 in 3. Unfortunately, there is a theory through the n’angas – the witch doctors – the witch doctors yes, that to have sexual intercourse with a virgin, i.e., a child, they can cure themselves of AIDS, and I think that this is possibly one of the reasons why the sexual abuse of children is so high. EB: When you’re saying children, you’re referring to girls, then. Not only girls. Boys as well. They are very much abused by lodgers. The children living in these houses or hovels take in lodgers in order to be able to pay their rent and these lodgers often abuse the children in that home.

EB: It sounds like it’s a lot of responsibility for somebody whose 15 years old. It is. It is hard for me to do this thing, because I’m still young. EB: But that’s the way it is. Yes. That is the way it is so I have to tackle the problems. EB: Don’t you have any relatives at all who you can turn to? We don’t have any relatives which we can tell about our problems.

More and more children will soon find themselves facing the same difficulties as Edmore. Already, there are 800-thousand orphans, and within a few years, up to half of Zimbabwe’s children will have lost either one or both parents. The implications, both social and economic, are too massive for anyone to fathom, says Pat Bailey.

In 5 or 10 years time, we’re going to lose a whole generation. And where will the leaders of our country come from in that case? So it’s a problem that the government as a whole needs to realise. We can do a certain amount and other NGOs also, but it is a national problem, and the future is for our children. We really as parents in Zimbabwe need to address the situation.

EB: Edmore, what about the future. I mean, do you plan to finish school? Yes, I want to finish school and pass. If I pass, then if funds are there, then proceed with my studies. EB: So you want to go on to do you’re A levels and your O levels. Yes, if I pass O level, I want to go to A level. EB: Are you a good student? Yes, I am a good student. EB: In spite of the fact that you don’t have very much time to study? Yeah, in spite of those problems, I am still a good student. EB: And when you finish school, what would you like to be later on? I want to be an accountant. EB: Why do you want to be an accountant? I want to be an accountant because at the moment, I’m best in accounts. EB: You’re very good in math. And maths, yes. I’m very good in maths. EB: What about your brothers and sisters, do they also want to finish school? Yes, they want to finish. EB: What does your brother want to do when he’s older? What do you want to be when you grow up? Ummmm. Nurse. He wants to be a nurse. You don’t want to be a doctor? A nurse? EB: What does he want to be a nurse, do you know? Why do you want to be a nurse? Doctor. He wants to be a doctor. EB: But why does he want to be a doctor? Why did you chose to be a doctor? He wants to help people who are sick. EB: You, what would you like to be when you are older? I am 11 years. A teacher. She wants to be a teacher.

“Children of the Plague” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Rick Kingma. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.