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Resilient and determined, 18 year old Atwine walks in his parents’ shoes to head a family of seven

child headed households
© UNICEF Uganda/2018/Dahlstrand
Atwine Kenneth (in red) poses with his siblings at their home in Katengyeto village, Ibanda District.

“Until I fail, I will not stop trying.”

By Proscovia Nakibuuka Mbonye and Stephen Mucunguzi

Following the death of both parents - father in 2013 and mother in 2016, Atwine Kenneth, who turns 18 years in August 2018 was left with no option but to take on a huge responsibility of looking after 7 siblings – 4 brothers and 3 sisters, aged between 16 and 4 years. The sadness in his eyes speaks volumes as he narrates his experience, outside their semi-permanent home located in Katengyeto village, Ibanda District. His smile very rare.

Atwine was told that his parents died of HIV/AIDS related illnesses although this has never been confirmed. Four of the older siblings including himself have since been tested for the HIV and thankfully the results were negative. He plans to also take the younger siblings for testing soon.

Uganda has over 3 million orphans, majority due to the HIV/AIDS scourge. Like Atwine, many of them lost both parents and are living in child headed households where children fend for themselves and take care of their younger siblings.

Atwine confirms that looking after his siblings is not easy at all. “Before our parents died, life was good, we had plenty to eat, school fees, access to medical care and I was in school, but I had to drop out,” he asserts. Before all this happened, Atwine wanted to become a professional driver after school and his favorite subjects were Mathematics and English.

Atwine’s day starts as early as 6:00am when he wakes up to prepare the children for school. Some are old enough to do it on their own but a lot of support is needed for 4 year old, Olive, the youngest. After an hour, they set off to a nearby government primary school. “We cannot afford breakfast so most times they go to school hungry.” Even though government provides free education, parents and guardians still need to pay a small fee, purchase uniforms, scholastic materials as well as provide meals.

But for Atwine, not all his siblings have school uniforms and most times, school essentials like books, pens, pencils and fees are very difficult for him to provide. When the children are all out, he heads out to look for odd jobs to earn some money. He mainly digs in people’s gardens and is paid 4,000 UGshs (app $1) for three hours. To supplement this, he sometimes sells crops and coffee from his garden when there is a bumper harvest. Lately he also buys coffee from farmers, dries it and sells it at a slightly higher price to earn more.

With the meagre income earned, Atwine prioritizes school fees and basic necessities. However, when he cannot find work, his earnings drastically reduce which affects the education of the siblings who have to drop out of school for weeks and sometimes months. “This worries me a lot as it greatly disrupts their learning, that is why many repeat classes,” he mentions.

At lunch time, the children return home from school for their one and only meal for the day, mainly prepared from ‘matooke’ and or maize flour both carbohydrates without anything added.  This is not nutritious at all. “I cannot afford to provide them with more than one meal a day,” Atwine asserts. When asked whether the children request for food at night, he mentions that they do but he reminds them that they can’t have everything that they need. I give them water and put them to sleep,” he adds. Sometimes when he can’t find have food, he provides porridge alone.

Life is evidently not very easy for the young head of the household. However, the children respect and listen to him. On top of providing for them, he also counsels and talks to them about the realities of life. “I urge them to focus on education.” He strongly believes that in case one of them succeeds especially through education, he/she would be able to support the rest.” He plans to talk to the girls when they are old enough, about the dangers of early marriages and the need to prioritize education. “Everything has its own time, education first then marriage,” he goes on.

Regardless of the challenges Atwine believes that nothing will stop him from taking care of his siblings. “Until I fail, I will not stop trying.” I will keep working hard because I don’t want us to be in this state forever, I want us to live a better life.”

Seeking medical care for the little ones is another big challenge Atwine faces. He mentions coughs, headaches and malaria as the most common illnesses among children. The nearest health facility is 10 km where simple illnesses are treated and when they have to be admitted, he transports them on his bicycle to a bigger health facility, which is even further away.

UNICEF supports Ibanda Local Government, Atwine’s district, to implement interventions for Prevention of mother to child Transmission of HIV (PMTCT), paediatric and adolescent HIV prevention, care and treatment at facility and community level.

Atwine is in control of managing the home. The children know exactly what to do and when. He distributes the house chores well while ensuring all children are involved. The girls usually stay home to wash dishes, sweep the compound while the boys go fetch water and firewood. He says the girls need to stay home because they can be raped or kidnapped. He is very protective of his sisters. He is also seen checking their homework and providing support were needed.

With very little or no support from his extended family, Atwine is very determined to look after his siblings and hopes to give them a better future. When asked if he would like to go back to school, he asks back, “Where and with whom will I leave my siblings?”

Asked whether he has intentions to marry, he says that may disorganize the family and take away his attention from the siblings. “I am not thinking about marriage until I see Olive, my 4 year old sister is grown up.”

 

 
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