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At a glance: Sierra Leone

Fatu’s story: Orphaned by AIDS in Sierra Leone, teenage girl cares for her family

© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2006/Savage
Fatu, 16, in her school uniform. Orphaned by AIDS, she is responsible for keeping herself and her siblings in school.

By Alusine Savage

ALLEN TOWN, Sierra Leone, 28 March 2006 – Many of the 35,000 orphans in Sierra Leone live in households headed by elderly people, children or adult relatives who are terminally ill. A large number live in dire poverty. Children growing up in such circumstances are at greater risk of being affected by poor nutrition, inadequate access to education, lack of emotional support, health and exploitation and abuse.

Fatu, 16, is one of those children. By the time she was 13, both of her parents had died of AIDS-related illness, leaving Fatu with only her grandmother to help care for her five brothers and sisters.

“My father was very caring and his greatest dream was to see his children educated and successful in life,” says Fatu. “About two years before his death, my father developed what we initially thought was tuberculosis. He would cough almost continuously and we were all concerned. He took a lot of medication but the cough never went away. One day my mother accompanied him to the hospital to do some tests. It was then that my father was found to be HIV-positive.”

Care of younger siblings

The children didn’t immediately understand what this diagnosis meant; they only knew that their father was very sick.

“It was a major strain on the family, as my father was the sole bread winner,” recalls Fatu. “A great part of my father’s income was used for the provision of medication and treatment. After a while it became apparent that we, the older children, had to drop out of school, as we could no longer afford it. We knew by then that our father was going to die and we sometimes wondered about the future. My mother was a strong woman and she continued to manage the home and care for my father with the limited money we had.”

Not long after Fatu’s father died in 1999, her mother also became ill. “At first we thought it was the stress of taking care of my father,” says Fatu. “My mother was later found to be positive. By now we knew this was a very bad disease that took away loved ones from you. My mother tried to prepare us for the inevitable but we refused to accept it and insisted she will get well. My mother died three years later.” 

© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2006/Savage
Fatu with her 60-year-old grandmother, Mamie Saffie Bangura.

At the age of 13, Fatu had to take over the care of her younger siblings with help from her 60-year-old grandmother, Mamie Saffie Bangura. Close relatives had refused to take in the six children, who wanted to remain together as a family. “We were then really concerned about our youngest sister, who was only two years old. But thank God she is now five years old and there is no sign of sickness,” Fatu notes with relief.

Juggling responsibilities

And now there are other signs of hope for Fatu. She is attending the Baptist Secondary School in Allen Town, a sprawling settlement outside Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. She also receives support in the form of school fees, uniforms, books and other school materials from Shepherd’s Hospice, a local non-governmental organization. Thanks to a sensitization programme run by Shepherd’s Hospice in Fatu’s school, she has escaped the stigma so often associated with HIV and AIDS.

Fatu’s household is large. She is living with 13 other dependants, including her siblings and cousins. There is no furniture inside her mud-brick house. Outside, there is a makeshift kitchen for cooking the family meal, and a small plot of land where Fatu and her grandmother grow cocoyam for subsistence. To supplement the family's income, they also grow vegetables and greens in the swamps after the harvest of swamp rice.

As the eldest child in her family, Fatu has to juggle a range of responsibilities and tasks such as selling vegetables in the market, cooking the day’s meal, paying her sisters’ school fees and going to school. “It is difficult for me, especially when I see my sisters dropping out of school,” she says. “I have to keep to them there so that my parents would be happy in their graves.”



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