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Youth mentorship visits give hope to communities

April 2013 - Patience Sanyangore is modest about the difference she has made to people in her community. She lives in Hatcliffe Extension, a sprawling resettlement in the suburbs of Harare, where makeshift homes made of any available material - including scrap metal, tarpaulin, twigs and stones - spring up haphazardly amidst a few small brick homes.

Strolling along a muddy track, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, Patience occasionally bops to the Zimbabwean music blasting from the street stalls. She is on her way to visit a 53-year-old grandmother who has to look after her four orphaned grandchildren while battling with her own ill health. The grandma, Jenenzia Mushita, is HIV positive and has recently suffered from TB, meningitis and high blood pressure. The grandchildren are all under the age of 10 and the youngest is only three
years old.

Jenenzia comes out to meet Patience, looking frail but serene. “The way I am now is because of these young people,” she says gently.

The two enter her tiny one room home. The dank room has almost no furniture except for a low table with a vase of plastic flowers on it. A dirty, old canvas sheet acts as a partition so that Jenenzia can sleep with four of her seven grandchildren on the floor.

The two women sit together on the floor and read. Jenenzia, who appears to be dressed in oversized men’s trousers and other handouts that do not fit, is hanging onto every word Patience reads. “She often comes to read the Bible to me. I find it soothing,” says Jenenzia, who lost her husband in 1992 from tuberculosis. Patience also helps to clean her room and fetch water. “The young people insist that I boil the water before drinking. I knew it before, but I didn’t take it too seriously,” says the grandma with a smile.

She adds that Patience washes her clothes in a bucket and fetches firewood so that she can make a fire to cook, which she does outside. Patience also accompanies Jenenzia to the clinic to fetch the supply of antiretroviral drugs which she has been taking for four years. She is too weak to walk unsupported for long.

“Sometimes I find there is no food in the house, so I just give her some of my money, even though it is not much,” adds Patience.

Patience is one of about 4,000 young people who have volunteered to participate in “Young People We Care”, a youth mentoring programme supported by UNICEF and involving 12 NGO partners. The programme benefits about 100,000 children and their communities. The aim is to offer psychosocial support to families who have been affected by HIV or who are in a particularly vulnerable situation. The youth also organise events, using the opportunity to raise awareness about HIV, sexual abuse, and other issues.   

HIV, which has a prevalence rate of 14.3 per cent in Zimbabwe, has devastated the lives of people already struggling to survive and has left 1.3 million orphans. “I sometimes help the orphans make memory boxes to help them grieve for their parents,” explains Patience.

Like other volunteers, Patience received one month training, supported by UNICEF, before starting work as a volunteer in 2008. The training covers child rights, hygiene education and HIV. It also teaches volunteers how to counsel and support the most vulnerable members of their communities. By foot, she visits five families every day, all of them affected by HIV.  “I’m doing this work to help them and to remind them that they belong to a community,” says Patience, whose 11-year-old niece lost her mother and now lives with her.

Patience listens as Jenenzia talks about her worries without self pity. “I wish I could be strong enough to work. I feel embarrassed about living off handouts from people.”

The grandma is worried about how to care for her grandchildren. “I was looking after seven, but I just couldn’t cope, so I arranged for another relative to have three of them.” She is particularly concerned about her three year-old grandchild, who is HIV positive. She is at the clinic because she has problems with asthma. The others have not been tested for HIV.  The young people, like Patience, encourage people in their community to take their children for HIV testing and treatment. 

The children’s education is another huge burden as she knows that it is essential for the children to attend school.  “I don’t have money for the school fees,” she says. Her nine-year-old grandchild, Eliza, was “chased away from school in February. If she is lucky she will be able to sit in class today. I just want to live to see these children fully educated, so they can help themselves.”  The grandchildren should be able to benefit from the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) which was set up by the Government in 2000 with support from the World Bank, UNICEF and other development partners to help orphans stay in school.

The grandmother shifts to get more comfortable, as if she is in pain. She is quiet for a while, deep in thought. Then, her kindly eyes looking at Patience, she adds unexpectedly, “I wanted to take my life. I got some rat poison. Patience came just in time.” She tries to dab at her tears with a cloth, but they flow stubbornly.

After leaving, Patience is clearly moved as she relates how she arrived just as the grandmother was about to swallow the poison. “She told me that people were running away from her and that it would be better if she died.  I just said, “Who will look after the children if you kill yourself?” Your problems are mine too.”



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