Free education gives children orphaned by HIV/AIDS a chance for a better life
The most impressive building in this quiet village tucked away in the Maluti Mountains in Lesotho stands in sharp contrast to the shabbier grey dwellings dotted along dirt roads. Set on lush rolling lawns with luxury limos in its grand garage, it has to be the best – if not the only – hotel in town, or so you think until you drive closer.
Only then do you realize that this is no tourist resort and that the smartest building in Thaba Tseka is not for the living, but for the dead. It serves as the funeral parlour and, these days, it seems to have taken on the significance of a cathedral in a medieval village.
The number of children who have lost one or both of their parents to HIV/AIDS – 10 per cent of the entire child population in a country with 2.2 million inhabitants - is overwhelming. A generation of children is being orphaned to AIDS in southern Africa.
Some 3 million children in Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe have lost one or both parents to AIDS; most are cared for by elderly relatives and many are now themselves heading households. A massive effort has been undertaken in these countries by United Nations agencies to stem the humanitarian crisis caused by the triple blow of drought, HIV/AIDS and weakened government capacity.
Keeping children in school despite the loss of caregivers
Starting in the year 2000, free primary education has been rolled out each year in Lesotho and it is starting to revolutionize the country’s youth. At school, children are taught life skills and HIV/AIDS education and are given two meals a day through the World Food Programme’s school-feeding programme.
At the Katlehong primary school, in Thaba Tseka, the schoolyard is jam-packed with over 150 chattering children, girls and boys, small and big. All of them had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. Many of the children are heading households themselves. Thaba Tseka is the district in Lesotho worst hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The locals blame the high HIV/AIDS prevalence on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project on the Katse Dam in the district that attracted migrant labourers from far and wide. Now they fear the HIV/AIDS prevalence will increase once the Maluti highway project reaches their village.
“We never saw this thing before, just in the past couple of years,” said Julia Likhama, one of the teachers. “But since education became free for all children in 2000, more and more orphans are coming back to school. They also get porridge in the morning and pap (maize meal) and vegetables, sometimes even meat at lunch.”
Ms. Likhama has been teaching at Katlehong since 1986 and knows the intimate details of many of these orphans’ lives, but there’s one girl in particular that concerns her.
Mary*, 16, lost her father to HIV/AIDS when she was much younger and her mother died four years ago. Mary thinks they died of tuberculosis. It’s left to Ms. Likhama to tell the story.
“Ever since her mother passed away, she has been sad,” said Julia. “She was a bright, clever girl, one of the top students but now she has changed: Her grades are not good. She’s just sad. This has disturbed her mentally.”
Mary now lives with an older brother but she must work cleaning other people’s homes in order to support herself. “That is why she comes to school late every morning,” Ms. Likhama explains.
Each of the orphans have their own striking stories to tell – one lives with his four siblings during the school year and with his grandmother during the holidays; another is living with an aunt; yet another lives alone with her brother and sister. They all have their own dreams and say they don’t like being identified and don’t want to be pitied.
Lesotho has an HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of 31 per cent, one of the highest in the world. The government has received much praise for its courageous battle against the epidemic. In fact, four years ago, King Letseii III declared HIV/AIDS a national disaster and government ministers now speak out on the issue and advocate the ABC of prevention (abstinence, be faithful, use condoms).
In a country where there is great sensitivity around HIV/AIDS, the principal of Katlehong primary school and her teachers are convinced that children are the bridge between the school and the community.
Teachers at Katlehong are bursting with ideas and enthusiasm: setting up model vegetable gardens to teach the children about nutrition and how to fend for themselves, using plays to educate the community about HIV/AIDS, giving the orphans food packages for the holidays, and selling second-hand clothing.
If their efforts and those of the international community succeed some day soon the smartest, most important place in the village may no longer be the funeral parlour but the Katlehong Primary School.
* Names have been changed.