Community provides "shoulders to cry on"
Wednesday 31 March 2004
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SWAZILAND: Community provides "shoulders to cry on"

MBABANE, 11 December (PLUSNEWS) - A legion of volunteer community activists in Swaziland are identifying orphans and vulnerable children - many of them affected by AIDS - and seeing to their nutritional, medical, educational and psychological needs.

"The community worker is called 'lihlombe lekukhalela', which means 'shoulder to cry on'. They are the person who children know they can go to for assistance. They can tell their troubles to this person, and find help," Ezrome Magagula, the community volunteer coordinator for the Deputy Prime Minister's Office, told PlusNews.

The number of orphaned and vulnerable children as a result of AIDS is on the rise, according to the latest report from the National Emergency Response Committee on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA). Out of a national population of approximately 950,000, an estimated 120,000 children under 15 will have lost both parents to AIDS by 2010, up from an earlier projection of 110,000.

"By 2005, one quarter of Swazi children will be orphans because of AIDS," said NERCHA, an organisation set up by the government to distribute Global Fund donations to public health NGOs and social welfare groups handling the epidemic.

"In the past, all the generations of a family lived together on the likhaya [farm], and a man had many wives, so if a parent died, there would be other parents to raise a child. That is now in the past," Chief Delezi Masilela, chief of the Vusweni Chiefdom north of Manzini, told PlusNews.

"If there were ever abandoned children, they would go live in the chief's homestead. I am a chief, and I would look after those unwanted children. But today there is no capacity," said Masilela, who alone out of Swaziland's 300 chiefs has publicly declared his HIV-positive status.

In a country where there are only a half-dozen government-sanctioned orphanages, community volunteers are on the lookout for vulnerable children.

"I know most of the people in my chiefdom, and many children. I go to schools and churches, and I enquire who has died and left children behind. Are there any parentless children still in school? Do pastors and teachers no longer see some children in Sunday School or their classrooms, and do they know what happened to them? I talk to neighbours, and I address community meetings. I am an orphan detective," said Jerome Fakudze, a 27-year-old nurse who spends three days a week and his off-hours as his community's "shoulder to cry on".

"It does not matter if a child is an orphan, or if he or she is just vulnerable to neglect and abuse and poverty - if there is a need, it is my job to identify it, and get help," Fakudze said.

The programme receives financial and technical assistance from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). Community volunteers undergo training through the Women's Resource Centre at the Deputy Prime Minister's Office.

"These volunteers all have big hearts. We develop their care for children by giving them skills in administering psychosocial services," said Jabu Dlamini, programme coordinator for the Deputy Prime Minister's Office.

"The ideal situation is to keep children in their communities," Alan Brody, country representative for UNICEF in Swaziland, told PlusNews.

"It isn't the Swazi way to uproot children from their homes and communities that have nurtured them, and put them in institutions. Wherever possible, the lihlombe lekukhalela will bring assistance to the children at their homes, to keep them there so they can continue at their schools and be with their friends. These things bring continuity to children's lives after their parents die," Brody said.

The Dlamini children are a case in point. Bongakile, a 14-year-old girl, Petros, a boy aged 12, and their 6-year-old sister Thab'sile, are subjects of Chief Masilela. Their mother died in May this year; their father passed away in 2001. Both succumbed to an AIDS defining illness, along with an older sister.

"I visit my mother when I pull the weeds from her grave. I speak with her," said Bongakile. She has few other adults to talk to.

The children live in a fertile area, but are physically incapable of planting, weeding and harvesting the maize field beside the cluster of four mud and thatch huts where they live.

Distant relatives none live closer than a two-hour bus trip stop by from time to time, though their interest appears to be the property the children's parents left behind, rather than the children themselves. The two girls and boy dress in rags, and their bodies are caked in dirt. Petros has a pair of shoes without laces from the time he attended school, but they are disintegrating in the summer mud.

The International Federation of the Red Cross delivers a monthly parcel containing matches, candles, a bar of soap, three bottles of cooking oil, four kilos of beans, and 10 kilos of maize meal. There is also a tube of toothpaste, although the children do not own toothbrushes.

Community members have planted their maize field, and will return to harvest the crop. But like the children's relatives, no one is around after sundown.

Lenhle Dube, a nurse at a clinic five km away, is the community "shoulder to cry on" who discovered the children last week.

"It is my job to attend to their psychosocial needs. Food assistance is necessary for survival, but these children need to be reintegrated into the community. The first thing that must be torn down is the wall of loneliness they live behind. They will need counselling, and guidance. They will need role models. This is also our job," Dube said.


[ENDS]

Recent SWAZILAND Reports

Campaign to help AIDS-hit education system, 31/Mar/04
AIDS stats must be seen in context, say authorities, 25/Mar/04
Seven-point plan to fight HIV/AIDS, 25/Mar/04
World's highest rate of HIV infection, 19/Mar/04
Unregulated ARVs cause health havoc, 5/Mar/04

Links

The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
Youth against AIDS
Making A difference for Children Affected by AIDS
Children and AIDS International Non-Government Organisation Network (CAINN)
AIDS Orphans Assistance Database

PlusNews does not take responsibility for info in links supplied.

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PlusNews is produced under the banner of RHAIN, the Southern African Regional HIV/AIDS Information Network. RHAIN's members currently include:

  • UNAIDS

  • IRIN

  • Inter Press Service (IPS)

  • SAfAIDS

  • PANOS

  • Health Systems Trust

  • Health & Development
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  • GTZ/Afronets


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