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Lavender and Learnmore: Two faces of Zimbabwe’s orphan crisis

© UNICEF Zimbabwe/2004/Crowe
Lavender Mbika, 14, is the treasurer, and a close friend and supporter, for the children orphaned by AIDS who work in the nutrition garden, in Zvishavane in Zimbabwe's Midlands.

By Sarah Crowe

ZVISHAVANE, Zimbabwe, October 2004— Of the 16 children who tend a small nutrition garden in Zvishavane in Zimbabwe’s Midlands, 14-year-old Lavender is one of the few who still has a mother. The other little ones, sunken and sad-looking, have latched on to her. They are just a few of Zimbabwe’s almost one million children orphaned by the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has ravaged this country. 

In its wake the extended African family has all but collapsed. Relatives prey on children once their parents are gone. Teenage girls are at risk of sexual abuse, early pregnancy and contracting HIV.

To keep some semblance of home life intact, some orphans are being encouraged to garden.

A community programme funded by ECHO, the European Union’s Humanitarian Aid Department, has helped build a network of community and non-governmental organizations in 27 districts of the country. The aim is to reach 30,000 children with projects like the nutrition garden in Zvishavane where orphans learn to cultivate and sell produce.

“Things have really changed,” says Lavender. “We can buy books and ballpoints for school. The orphans are benefiting because we now get soap to wash and sometimes cooking oil.”

Lavender’s group of children has made 17,000 Zimbabwe dollars but it won’t go far. With the country in the midst of an economic crisis, a pencil costs around 500 Zimbabwe dollars, and an exercise book costs 2000.


The Krarama nutrition garden benefits 17 orphans between the ages of 8 and 16 years.

Not far from the lovely Lavender and her orphan friends is another 14-year-old, Precious Phiri, and her 11-year-old brother, Learnmore. The pair have lived alone since their parents died. With no money for school fees, their days are spent, with the help of the Red Cross, just surviving -- fetching water, cleaning and cooking.

Learnmore has none of Lavender’s joy. His eyes reflect the hopelessness of the poor and unloved. With the rapidly rising cost of education he has little chance of living up to the name his parents gave him.

Until recently Zimbabwean education was the pride of Africa. But the simultaneous onslaught of HIV/AIDS, the economic crisis and successive years of drought and hunger have put an end to that. School enrolment dropped from 86 to 63 per cent in 2002.

The Zimbabwe government has responded with BEAM – the Basic Education Assistance Module – and has approved a national plan which helps to get orphans better health care and schooling. But these programmes are threatened as economic conditions worsen, and as donors become more reluctant to fund President Robert Mugabe’s regime.

“We know we are only reaching a small number of children. It is crucial that we act now. Children should not be held ransom to politics and if we are going to reverse the country’s high HIV rate we have to start with these children, who are the most vulnerable to abuse,” said UNICEF representative Festo Kavishe.





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