The other casualties of AIDS

SUN JOURNAL

Children: The disease's continuing rampage through Africa has produced a burgeoning population of orphans.

October 27, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MAGWANGA, South Africa - The seven Malinga children can look outside the door of their mud-walled hut each day and see what AIDS has taken from them.

A mound of red stones with tufts of weeds sprouting from the top marks the resting place of their mother, who died from the disease in June last year. Beside it, there is a second stone pile with a tree branch laid across the top like a bouquet of flowers - to keep the neighbor's goats away. This is the grave of their father, who, frail and feverish, succumbed one afternoon in March to the same AIDS virus that killed his wife.

Today, the children - ages 7 to 20 - find themselves alone, surviving on donated soybeans and cornmeal, scrounging for money to pay school fees, begging for kindness from relatives already taxed by problems of their own.

"There are so many of us. Sometimes we go three days without eating. Then, the younger ones don't go to school because they are hungry," says Tholakele Malinga, the shy 20-year-old daughter in tattered clothes who has been watching over her five younger brothers and one younger sister. In her arms, she cradles the eighth member of their family - her 18-month-old son.

Africa's AIDS crisis is steadily producing a new wave of victims: the orphans left behind in the wake of a virus infecting about 28.5 million people across the continent.

Here in the rugged green hills of South Africa's KwaZulu Natal province, one in three adults is infected with the human immunodeficiency virus. But the number of dead and dying is just one measure of the epidemic's destruction. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome has other faces: It is the disease that orphans children, that burdens grandparents and relatives with clothing and feeding them, and that is sinking the entire community into deeper poverty.

Worldwide, more than 14 million children under the age of 15 have lost one or both parents to AIDS, according to the latest United Nations statistics. Of those, 11 million live in sub-Saharan Africa. But staggering as the numbers are, most governments have failed to recognize or respond to the crisis, health officials say.

"Children fall off the political table more than any other item. Children are always an addendum in every major debate," Stephen Lewis, the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa, said during a U.N. conference on AIDS orphans held in Johannesburg last month.

"Although we've moved on voluntary counseling and testing, prevention of mother-to-child transmission, anti-retroviral treatment and prevention campaigns ... we have not moved on orphans. It is the toughest issue in the spectrum of AIDS issues," Lewis said.

The Johannesburg meeting, organized by former South African President Nelson Mandela, urgently called on African governments to discuss the orphan problem, launch campaigns to ensure that every child is in school, and pursue health programs to keep HIV-positive parents alive with anti-AIDS drugs.

Such goals, if and when they are realized, offer little help now to the struggles of families such as the Malingas, who on a recent sweltering afternoon huddled in the shade of their traditional Zulu hut, not stirring except to swat away a fly.

Time appears to have all but stopped at the family's homestead. The hands on the battery-powered clock hanging on the wall of their hut are frozen at 6:45. The thatch roof on their hut is caving in. The yard is littered with tin cans, plastic bags and old clothes.

The Malingas don't talk with any excitement about what career they might choose, where they might travel, what the years ahead might bring.

Instead, life is measured out in meals. Today there is a bag of soybeans and some stiff corn porridge. Tomorrow they'll eat the same. Tholakele Malinga opens up a box with their meager food stores and judges that they have enough for the next week or so. Then they'll start worrying again.

Without assistance, the odds are stacked against families such as the Malingas. Health officials say orphans have a greater chance of becoming malnourished, of dropping out of school, of being forced into child labor. In families with no income, young orphan girls try prostitution to earn money and become infected with the AIDS virus.

African families share a strong tradition of assisting neighbors and relatives during times of hunger, illness and disaster, but the AIDS crisis is placing new financial strains on a system unequipped to respond to a humanitarian disaster of this size.

The people who live along these winding dirt roads in the Lubombo Mountains have always been poor, living without electricity or running water. Even before AIDS, families here were being torn apart. With few job opportunities in this part of the country, the men migrated to the gold mines and cities to look for work but were forbidden under apartheid to take their families with them. Sleeping with mistresses and prostitutes in cities, the migrant laborers helped spread the virus to their wives in the countryside.

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