Helping Mozambique’s elderly heads of households care for children
In the remote village of Bomofo, located in Gaza southern province, a group of around 50 elderly women and men, some accompanied by their orphaned grandchildren, sit their weary bodies under the shade of a tree. They have gathered to find solutions to problems they confront while bringing up their orphaned grandchildren.
It is one of many regular meetings they have as members of Vukoxa (meaning ‘old age’ in the local language), an organization which helps elderly heads of households care for children, normally their grandchildren. They chat openly with each other and with representatives of the district’s health and education authorities. With the support of Help Age International and UNICEF, Vukoxa currently works in eight communities to protect the interests of older people and to represent them at district and provincial level.
The elderly all agree that Vukoxa has succeeded in uplifting their lives and that of their young charges. “Athaliah Mabunda is typical of many of the grandmothers who have benefited from Vukoxa,” explains counsellor Ameilia Mondlane. “She was so traumatized when we first visited her that she was not able to talk to us, but gradually she opened up.”
Athaliah Mabunda’s past was traumatic. She had lived through a 16-year civil conflict which robbed her of her husband, Francisco. He was shot dead as they tried to flee the fighting, and six of her seven children died during the war. “It was too risky to get to the health post, so we just stayed at home,” she says.
Her last daughter, who had been abandoned by her husband, died in 1999 after a long illness, which was probably due to AIDS, although tests were not easily available then. The frail grandmother was left to care for Eliza, who is now 11 years old.
Her devotion to her granddaughter was tested the following year, during Mozambique’s devastating floods of 2000. “I heard the water roaring like a train, so I rushed to grab Eliza. I wrapped her against my body.” Eliza smiles for the first time as her grandmother demonstrates scooping her up in her arms and wrapping her in a cloth around her stomach. “Then I ran to the neighbour’s tree. I climbed up with Eliza strapped to me. We stayed up the tree for two days with the other neighbours until the water went down. I saw my home float past,” says the grandmother.
Although Athaliah Mabunda has not been to school herself, she makes sure that Eliza never misses her lessons. However, there are many household chores to complete before and after school, such as fetching water, collecting firewood, farming for food for them to eat, cooking and cleaning.
Eliza does not say much, but she is quick to point out her wishes for the future. “I would like to be a teacher,” she says. Her grandmother smiles and says, “She always tells people that.”
Vukoxa has helped them with schoolbooks and pencils, blankets, farming and cooking utensils, and clothes. Their tiny traditional mud and stick home has also been reinforced with concrete on the floor and she now has zinc roofing and a latrine close by her home, and soap.
“With the help of Vukoxa’s counsellors, 43 children, most of whom are orphans, have been reintegrated back into school,” says the local school Director Estavao Nhatumbo.
Vukoxa’s counsellors also play a major role in child health care, says Silva Chauque, from the health sector. “The counsellors explain to the other old people that they should take the children to the health post when they have a fever or diarrhoea rather than treating them with plants from the traditional healer. Before, about six children would die each month at the local health post, but this month, for example, there has been no death.”
When asked about their main problem, most of the elderly agree that, despite support for agricultural activities, lack of food for their grandchildren due to the persistent drought is what worries them most. They still think of basic day-to-day survival. Ask Athaliah Mabunda about future plans and she looks blank. “What future can we think about when we have so much poverty?” she asks.
© UNICEF Mozambique/2006