Children orphaned by HIV/AIDS: No smile – never
by Michael Klaus
Xai-Xai, 20 February – Cremilda won’t smile, let alone laugh; not when her uncle’s baby pulls her hair with sheer enthusiasm; not even when she and her sisters talk with affection of Fátima, the activist who visits them twice a week at their new homestead. “She is our best friend,” Cremilda says sombrely. The 13-year-old girl saw her mother die, on 20 May 2004. She had stayed with her sickly mother that morning, while her two sisters went to school. Then, all of a sudden, events went very fast and the mother followed her husband, who had died almost half a year before.
The Langa sisters always stay close to each other, as if they wanted to protect themselves against the outside world. Since the beginning of the new school year in January, they are in grade 7, all three of them. Cremilda had dropped out last year to care for her mother. Laura, her 15-year-old sister, had been enrolled late, starting school only together with the youngest of the Langa sisters, Anastasia, who is now 11 years old. The girls go to school together, and they also share their preferences and dreams. All three of them love Maths and Portuguese, and all three of them want to become teachers.
Fátima and her colleagues at the organisation Kuvumbana managed to get a poverty certificate for the Langa sisters, which helped them get exemption from school fees. “For primary school students, the school administration accepts this easily. In secondary school, which starts with grade 8, it will be much more difficult,” Francelina Ntamele, the coordinator of the association of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) and their supporters, explains.
Kuvumbana provided the Langa sisters with school material, and linked them up with the WFP programme of food rations for orphaned and vulnerable children. Equally important was the moral support given by Kuvumbana activist Fátima. Soon after the mother’s death the children lost most of their few possessions when somebody broke into their hut. Things became even worse when a neighbour claimed ownership of their home asking for a monthly rent. “We tried to keep them there, but it was not possible,” Francelina explains. Kuvumbana found out that the hut was actually built on the man’s land. “But he must have had a special arrangement with the Langa family, because they had never paid any rent. After the parents died, nobody wanted to know anything about it. And the girls could not present any documents, which showed that they didn’t have to pay.”
Kuvumbana discovered that the girls had an uncle who lived in another part of Xai-Xai, and asked him to take care of them. “He seems to treat the girls well, but his wife apparently makes them work a lot in the household,” Francelina explains. The woman seems to be overwhelmed with her own three young children and the three new family members. Moreover, her husband will be leaving soon again to continue his job as a miner in South Africa, and will not return before next Christmas.
Two and a half years after its foundation, Kuvumbana, which means ‘to be united’ in the local language Changane, can already count on 52 activists. Within their working area in Xai-Xai, the capital of Gaza province, they identify orphaned and vulnerable children, and assess their situation. They register whether children have to care for sick parents, whether one or both parents have already died, whether the children have a birth certificate and go to school, and whether they are in good health. In case the parents are terminally sick, they help them write a will, secure relevant documents regarding the family’s property, and find a relative to take care of the children, who will stay behind.
Kuvumbana is part of RENSIDA, the national network of PLWHA organisations, supported by UNICEF. So far, the network consists of 22 similar organisations. Many of them are also organising information sessions on how to prevent HIV/AIDS in schools and communities. Their activists speak up against the stigma still surrounding HIV/AIDS in Mozambique, very often by simply disclosing their sero-status at the end of such a session.
The fight against HIV/AIDS is a major priority of the UNICEF country programme with the Government of Mozambique. In 2004, UNICEF spent around 8 million USD in this area in support of Government and civil society efforts to stop the further spread of the pandemic and to mitigate the impact especially on children and women. UNICEF is working in the context of a larger United Nations programme to fight HIV/AIDS in Mozambique.
With UNICEF support, the PLWHA organisations reached almost 13,000 orphaned and vulnerable children and 4,000 families in 5 of the 11 provinces in 2004. UNICEF provided RENSIDA and its member organisations with technical, financial and material support worth 125,000 USD, such as school material, brochures on HIV/AIDS prevention and bicycles for their activists.
This has helped Kuvumbana identify and support 2,115 orphaned and vulnerable children in Xai-Xai, in 2004 alone. Among them are 90 households headed by children. One of them is the Langa family, now only consisting of the sisters. Nobody knows what caused the deaths of their parents, who had both been sick for months. But Gaza province is one of the provinces with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in Mozambique with 22% of the population between 15 and 49 being infected, according to the latest estimates of the Provincial Directorate for Health. Nationwide the prevalence rate was 14.9% in 2004. Around 270,000 children have already lost one or both parents to AIDS.
“Our life is better than before,” the Langa sisters say, standing huddled together. “Well – more or less,” Laura adds. The children don’t like the idea that they will have to stay alone with their aunt soon. But they count on Kuvumbana. “Fátima is a very good friend,” Laura repeats, while Cremilda looks to the ground.