TOPICS > Health

Orphaned by AIDS

May 9, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: At the United Nations yesterday, a 13-year-old Bolivian girl told an international assembly, “We are street children. We are the victims and orphans of HIV/AIDS.”

The scene was the first special U.N. session devoted to the problems of children around the world. Nowhere is the problem of AIDS and children more acute than in southern Africa. We have a report from Zambia by special correspondent Jonathan Silvers.

JONATHAN SILVERS: Since the AIDS pandemic began 20 years ago, the disease has claimed more than 15 million lives in sub-Saharan Africa. In Zambia, one of the countries hardest hit, the Ministry of Health expects that half the population will die of AIDS. The impact on children has been devastating. In Zambia, 40,000 children under age 15 are believed to be infected; 650,000 children have been orphaned or left with one parent.

DR. STELLA GOINGS, UNICEF Zambia: It’s very hard to find a family in Zambia that hasn’t been personally touched. It’s very hard to find a child that hasn’t seen or witnessed a death related to HIV/AIDS. The extended family in the community structure, they’ve really broken under the weight of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and poverty, and when the burden becomes too great, families are unable to cope anymore, and so we’re seeing tremendous numbers of orphans and children who are no longer able to be cared for by their extended family.

And in the midst of all that, we are seeing within the communities themselves and within extended families truly heroic efforts to absorb the children, to work with them, to give them the nurturing and caring in the environment, in their own communities that is so necessary for this next generation.

JONATHAN SILVERS: As the toll mounts, Zambia’s elder generation is struggling to preserve its traditions. In the village of Kamponde, Ndiliaha Mwila and her husband, Steven, took in two grandchildren in 1999 after losing their son and daughter- in-law to AIDS. With work and food scarce, the Mwila family subsists on one meal a day, a meal for which granddaughter Queen is grateful.

QUEEN MWILA (Translated): My brother and I were brought here after staying with relatives in different towns. My grandfather took us in because we weren’t going to school. None of my other relatives thought to send me to school. They made us work all the time and didn’t feed us.

JONATHAN SILVERS: Queen’s grandfather, Steven, is a disabled copper miner. 65 years old and blind in his left eye, he now repairs chairs to support his extended family.

STEVEN MWILA ( Translated): I’m an orphan. I lost my parents when I was young, and my relatives rejected me, so I was raised by my village. I have strong feelings about people who reject orphans. They don’t deserve to live on this earth. It is a blessing to take in these children. My only worry is what happens to them when I die. In my condition, I can’t find work, and food is scarce. The house is in bad repair and may collapse. I’m not sure how long I’ll be here to help them.

QUEEN MWILA (Translated): I think about what will happen to us if my grandfather dies. If he dies while I’m in primary school, I’ll find work to pay school fees. If he dies after I finish school, I’ll take a job and care for the other children.

JONATHAN SILVERS: Zambians once prided themselves on their devotion to children; the tradition of extended family care giving held that orphans be taken in by relatives. Foundlings were adopted by neighbors and accorded privileged status in the community by way of compensating them for the loss of their parents. But as millions of children are discovering, AIDS and economic turmoil are destroying social traditions, leading relatives and neighbors to reject them when they’re at their most vulnerable.

Boas Mobela has known little but rejection since his mother’s death. For the past three years, he’s cared single-handedly for his sister and three brothers on this remote compound. The nearest neighbor is a two- hour hike away.

BOAS MOBELA (Translated): I remember my mother fondly. She provided us with everything, whatever we needed. I miss that most. Now my brothers and sister turn to me for everything.

JONATHAN SILVERS: In 1999, at age 14, Boas had already been caring for his siblings and ailing mother, Margaret, for three years. Abandoned by their father, forsaken by neighbors, Boas and the children kept vigil over their mother.

AIDS is often misunderstood in rural areas, where victims of the disease and their families are thought to be bewitched, the consorts of evil spirits. Margaret’s death effectively severed the children from their community.

BOAS MOBELA (Translated): Neighbors in the village didn’t help us at all. They urged us to move away from them. This is our parents’ land. There was nothing here but bush when we came. I brought the smaller children here and built huts for each of us. We decided to live in one house so we could be together. I wasn’t intimidated. If I didn’t build the huts, no one else would.

ALICK NYIRENDA, Executive Director, Copperbelt Health Education Project: Boas has been ushered into adulthood with very few skills to cope with adult life, so he has been ushered into this cycle of new needs, new challenges. He has to engage into new ways of thinking and he has to engage into new ways of doing things in order to cope as an individual, and also to help his siblings to cope, as well.

The impact of the epidemic is so great. You will find families where children have been fed, they have been clothed, and they have a roof on top of their head. But emotionally they are starved, and also you have children who are emotionally fed but they have no clothes. They have no shelter and they have no food.

DR. STELLA GOINGS: There is an increasing proportion of under-15 population that finds themselves orphaned now. Zambia, a country with only 10.3 million people, may actually be facing as many as 2 million orphans by the end of this decade.

JONATHAN SILVERS: But responses are few. Increasingly Zambia’s AIDS orphans attempt to escape their suffering by taking to the street. The capital, Lusaka, is flooded with children from the rural provinces.

ROGERS MWEWA, Executive Director, Foundation of Hope: It’s very difficult for them to survive on the streets. They have to be in a group for them to survive. And when they are in a group, they learn tactics like begging. At the same time, they take different kinds of drugs that take away the shyness to beg. So the drugs really helps them to survive on the streets.

JONATHAN SILVERS: Rogers Mwewa is executive director of Fountain of Hope, a residence for Lusaka street children. In the absence of a coordinated government response, the task of aiding orphans and vulnerable children has fallen on charities and non-governmental organizations.

ROGERS MWEWA: Children, when they come here, they’re exposed to the activities that are around here. They’re exposed to sports, they’re exposed to skills training, they’re exposed to education, and it’s up to these kids to decide what they want to do and what they think is good. A good number of them are in education, and some of them are building the building that you saw there. Most of it was done by the children from here.

JONATHAN SILVERS: The goal is to make the children self-sufficient by the time they leave the center. With 6,000 children on the streets and space for only 300, demand far exceeds the center’s resources. While most of its activities revolve around boys, the center recently opened a separate residence in response to a surge of girls on city streets. The 16 girls here range in age from three years to fourteen. All lost a parent to AIDS; most were abused after their parent’s death. 13-year-old Janet Mumba was beaten by her brother and uncle a year ago. The wounds have yet to heal.

JANET MUMBA (Translated): My parents broke up and my father died. The other children and I went to live with my uncle, but he treated us badly– he shouted and beat us. A friend told me that it was better living on the street, because there you could beg for money and food. At night we slept in a drainage ditch. I don’t think about going home. I’m better off here.

ROGERS MWEWA: The problem is big, and will do a lot of harm to our mother Zambia if definitely people don’t invest in children. Today a big number of people in Zambia are affected. They are infected by HIV, and they are likely to die any time. The only people that are free from HIV/AIDS are those that you are seeing here. This is the same group of children that are neglected, and let’s not make them go on to the streets of Lusaka and do whatever they have to do in the streets of Lusaka, and kill themselves in the streets of Lusaka.

JONATHAN SILVERS: At night, Rogers Mwewa often walks the street of Lusaka monitoring the children, offering tips for survival, hoping to help some of the thousands left alone by the scourge of AIDS.

JIM LEHRER: Participants at the special U.N. Session hope to produce a plan to address the plight of children orphaned by AIDS. It’s expected to call for more programs to increase community support and protections from abuse and exploitation. That U.N. session ends tomorrow.