Reporter’s Notebook: Children Orphaned by AIDS Cobble Lives from the Ruins

During our reporting trip to Africa, we looked at several main areas: the fight against HIV/AIDS in South Africa; the rise in tuberculosis-HIV co-infection; and the rapidly rising number of young South Africans who’ve lost one or both parents to AIDS and must cope as best they can.

To look at efforts to deal with AIDS orphans, we traveled to KwaZulu-Natal province, home to some of the highest rates of adult HIV infection in the country.

Our first stop was a tiny hamlet in the mountains north of Durban, where we visited the tiny home of three girls left orphaned by AIDS three years ago. Their mother died in 2002, their father in 2006. The graves sit just feet from the front door of their home. Try to imagine being left without parents, with little extended family, and being able to look on your parents’ graves when you walk out your front door every morning.

There is a certain reticence of village people in Africa around foreigners, around white people, around people with resources. Compounded by their stunning losses and their genuine shyness, that gulf between my world and theirs made it difficult to do an interview. However, a few things were clear. They were managing, somehow.

As orphans, they received an allowance each month, which provided for meager food and a modest school wardrobe. The three, a ten-year-old girl and her twin 12-year-old sisters, lived down a dirt lane from their mother’s sister-in-law, who was nominally looking after them.

When our team first visited their home, it was utterly bare, with only a few foam mats serving as furniture for the three of them. The next time we came we were greeted warmly by the aunt, who had quietly added a table and chairs to their possessions. When the aunt realized we meant to put their nieces on American television, a refrigerator was suddenly in the tiny home, all but ignored by the girls, who probably assumed it would be gone once we passed from their lives.

The girls were busy, one tending a pot of corn porridge, another sweeping the front steps, the third washing up and discarding the dirty water out the front door. They were preparing for the hour-long walk to church, a tiny building on a hill overlooking a valley of aloes, the tough, stringy succulent growing wild and cultivated throughout this part of KwaZulu.

We followed the girls over the course of their long walk, as they dutifully picked up little cousins and took them to church.

If you’ve never heard Zulu religious music, you’ve missed a treat. The complex, dense harmonies of the hymns have embroidered and embellished the old warhorses of the Methodist hymnals since the first missionaries came from the British Isles a century and a half ago.

The pastor serves a network of churches scattered over these hills and valleys, and was not with his flock on this particular sunny Sunday, so lay people took over the duties of preacher, lector and prayer leader. The prayer was passionate, the attention to the preacher, riffing off the Gospels, was rapt. An hour later, it was over and the little congregation burst singing from the tiny worship space, lining up to shake our hands as Sunday services came to an end.

Though I am a stickler for reportorial ethics, worrying about the “effect of the gaze” and the ways the presence of a journalist may alter the events being watched, we broke down and gave the girls a ride home in our vehicle.

It was noon, and they hadn’t yet eaten a morning meal. Off came the Sunday best, to be replaced by knockaround clothing as the last preparations were made for a stew including corn meal, beans and chicken.

The social safety net in a struggling country like South Africa can’t offer much to these girls. Their aunt, not even a blood relative, has assured the authorities she is caring for the girls, but the girls told us they pretty much take care of themselves.

There are no stores nearby, so when they need groceries they ask a ride from a neighbor or hand over money with a request. Their friends and neighbors tend cows and goats, and can depend on them for meat and milk, while the girls have none.

With the little they have, others can listen to music on the radio or spend a little money on the small extras that bring a little comfort and joy into lives that are very hard. These girls, however, live too close to the edge for any of that.

We who come from a world with so much that we fill bookshelves with speculations on the burdens of wealth might find a life with so little hard to imagine. But this pair of twins on the brink of their teenage years and a little sister not far behind do truly have each other to lean on. Others we met later in our journey are not so lucky.

The next morning we were at school with two of the girls. Across a valley and atop a nearby hill not far from their home stood the Mendu School, where 317 pupils aged 5 to 17 learn their letters and sums and just maybe acquire the skills that will propel them into a better life than the ones their parents live.

The children massed on the field between the two modest rows of classrooms this morning for assembly before instruction begins. Their singing is, with no exaggeration, glorious. Gospels, inspirational songs exhorting them to be good and to work hard make up to the repertory.

Then their principal, not having to worry about stepping across any church-state lines, begins the day with the Lord’s Prayer, and the children head to their classrooms. She tells me she hopes she can see the brightest of her charges on to university. She smiles widely as she reports that many of her past pupils are working today as doctors, nurses and teachers.

Medical school seems an awfully long way away from where we stand this morning. Cooking smells waft across the open field from a tiny building where two women prepare lunch for all the children. The principal easily admitted that attendance at the school is so high because the children get two meals during the school day.

With so many of the children living in utter poverty, and many looking on as a parent slowly withers and dies from AIDS, she knows those meals constitute much of the safety net for her children.

It is easy to understand how different the life of an AIDS orphan is at 17, compared with, let’s say four years of age. For one thing, the 17 year olds are often being asked to raise their own younger brothers and sisters, while the four year-old must rely on the adults around him to do the right thing.

When we left Mendu School we headed along dirt roads to see another response to the crisis. Fueled by a corporate grant, a group of social workers, teachers and day care workers opened a nursery school for children whose parents have died.

Peek inside a double-wide trailer surrounded by cyclone fence, you’ll find tiny children singing, dancing and chowing down. Lindiwe, their principal, seems to have found a way to be what these children need for as long as they need it. Thanks to her, they’ll enter school knowing their alphabet, their numbers, and colors. They’ll be well-nourished, and when they’re sick Lindiwe will see they’re taken to the clinic down the road.

Until their families or caregivers can tap into the monthly government grant for the orphans, the center gives them monthly food supplements: cooking oil, fortified corn porridge, rice, beans, sugar and dishwashing soap. When the grant kicks in, the extra food aid will stop and other families will step in. There are always more to step in.

As we were getting ready to leave the daycare center in Embengeni, a teenager in her high school uniform came to pick up her little brothers. The center also cared for her young son, since her prospects improve with the more school she can complete. As we watched her head down the road, two other children she cares for joined the crowd, and the little group headed toward their house.

We followed, but I don’t think we were prepared for what we saw. The entourage of tiny children, let by their teenaged mother, big sister, and cousin, increased in size once she crossed the threshold and entered the empty little house she heads. Three more children crowded in as she breast-fed her own baby, crouching in the dark, windowless shelter, with the other children crowding in around her.

Their house was flanked on each side by other empty houses, where other mothers and fathers died. That is how this crowded household was established. It was founded by AIDS. The teenager was now the only responsible “adult” left on a compound where the disease raced through overlapping sexual networks.

What kind of life will this heavily-burdened girl be able to provide for her cousins, her brothers and sister, and even her own child? Will South Africa be able to provide in a way that will allow these most endangered of children to break out of the crushing poverty that marked their parents’ lives even before AIDS did?

I’ll have more on all of this in a series of reports on the NewsHour, and further Online NewsHour reports from South Africa.