Sacrificing youth for adult duties

In Lesotho, about 100,000 children have lost parents to AIDS, forcing many orphans to be heads of household

October 08, 2006|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

LIFELEKOANENG, Lesotho --Every day he cooks porridge for his siblings, sees them off to school and gets them to bed. He tracks his 8-year-old brother's recovery from tuberculosis. He deals with misbehavior like his 11-year-old sister's theft of a neighbor's chicken.

"I feel like an adult," Rapelang Ntsane said, gazing vacantly at the houses scattered around this windswept village in southern Africa, "because every problem here at home has been tackled by me." Rapelang is 15 years old.

Disheveled, shoeless and gloomy about life's cruelty, he gamely tries to maintain some household order, if not much comfort or cleanliness, for his little sister and brother. He is all they have. They are all he has.

Rapelang and his siblings are AIDS orphans. Since their grandmother died of tuberculosis on Christmas Eve, they have been on their own. No relative can or will take them in, and Lesotho's meager orphanage slots are full, primarily with other AIDS orphans.

Their only choice is to live in what is called a child-headed household, a state the village chief complains is making them "wild."

"We are hoping very soon the orphan situation in Lesotho will be declared a national crisis, because this is what it has become," said Limakatso Chisepo, director of the country's Department of Social Welfare.

Her agency, she said, is trying to make top government officials "realize how big the problem has become."

In Lesotho (pronounced Le-SOO-too), a mountainous land of 1.9 million people, about 100,000 youths have lost a parent to AIDS, according to the United Nations, which estimates that one-fifth of them are orphans. Some 1,860 are teenagers like Rapelang, traumatized kids saddled with the grown-up burdens of running a family.

The situation is worsening throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS has already claimed one or both parents of 14 million children, a toll UNICEF says will likely hit 25 million in the next few years.

"God, it's a sad, sad phenomenon everywhere on the continent. Their little psyches have been torn apart," said Stephen Lewis, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa.

"The orphan dilemma raises questions no one has yet really confronted or adequately dealt with. The implications are huge for the society, and everybody is scrambling."

In Lifelekoaneng this month, several villagers prepared to gather late one afternoon to scramble for answers of their own. The question: After nine months, couldn't a better home be found for the Ntsane children?

Sticking together

That morning, Rapelang stood alone outside the house. He thrust his hands into a frayed jacket to break the gusting breeze. His earring glinted in the early light. A cacophony of cowbells clanged in a nearby pasture.

The house was a dim hovel, far less appealing than the sunny concrete porch. Wind whooshed in through jagged windowpanes - painful, Rapelang said, on below-freezing winter nights.

A bureau in the bedroom held a candleholder used by the children to light the room, since the house has no electricity. It also held a religious book bearing the title This is Not the End of the World.

In the kitchen, a wilted head of cabbage lay on the counter. Off to the side, under torn curtains, sat two tubs of dark water, possibly remnants of washing. Many dishes were still dirty. A stack of bowls rose in a third tub, caked with porridge crust.

Porridge is the meal Rapelang makes morning and night over a fire he burns in a blue pail outside the front door. The public hospital in the nearby town of Mafeteng gives the children a monthly ration of corn meal, lentils and cooking oil.

In addition, the Department of Social Welfare provides $14 a month, a sum Rapelang says he has used to buy paraffin fuel for days when they have no firewood. On frigid nights, they burn a fire on the concrete kitchen floor.

Except this month, all of that money went to the woman living in the black house across the way. It was her chicken meat - several pounds of it - that his 11-year-old sister Itumeleng stole a few weeks ago in a brazen kitchen raid.

"I think it was out of madness, because we had food," Rapelang said. With evident pride, he said that "there's never been a time when we ran out of food totally." But "we don't eat meat very often." He scolded her, he said, but his tone suggested it was half-hearted.

The children stick together. They play together, kicking around a ball made from balled-up plastic. They spend evenings together, lapsing into shared memories of their mother.

They part ways only when the two little ones trundle off to the free primary school. Rapelang, still in the fourth grade, stays home. Asked why, he pointed to his dirty feet. He had no shoes. His only pair fell apart from overuse weeks earlier, and he lacked money for another pair.

"The teachers told me not to come to school if I didn't have shoes," he said with a blank expression, eyes looking straight ahead. "Some of the other kids embarrass me."

A test of strength

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