Thursday, February 22, 2007
Sipho, 7, an orphan, sat overwhelmed amid his new and only possessions - a mattress, blanket and a supply of food. "Is it mine?" he asked uncertainly as he gazed at the multicoloured mattress wrapped in plastic.
He was reassured that it was all his by Lutho Ndibanne of the Baphalali Swaziland Red Cross Society, who is in charge of distributing aid to children in the informal settlement of Mahwalala, in the Swazi capital, Mbabane.
"To take home?" asked a disbelieving Sipho. "Yes," Ndibanne smiled. "So you don't have to sleep on the dirt floor." Still amazed, Sipho pondered a moment and whispered, "Why?"
The simple question drew the smile from Ndibanne's face and brought home the emotion of the moment, and the value of the gifts. She knelt and took the child in her arms. "Because we love you, very much."
Two strapping teenage boys helped carry Sipho's other gifts, two 50kg bags of maize and corn-soya blend, each more than double the small boy's weight, three bottles of cooking oil, a 5kg sack of beans and a blanket.
Sipho had never had a new blanket; he had always shared a blanket with another child, or his mother's before she died of a suspected AIDS-related illness.
He is among the 47 orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) receiving assistance at the Red Cross clinic in Mahwalala. Another 86 children are provided with household items at a second distribution point in the township, as part of a nationwide pilot programme financed by Finnish donors, which assists 1,400 OVC.
Baphalali Swaziland Red Cross Society, the country branch of the International Red Cross, hopes to scale up the programme to reach 5,000 OVC by the end of 2007. Swaziland's burgeoning population of OVC have needs greater than paying school fees, and the pilot programme attempts to bring a 'holistic approach' to orphan support.
Nearly 40 percent of adult Swazis are HIV-positive, giving Swaziland the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) the number of orphans has skyrocketed since 2000, reaching 100,000, largely due to HIV/AIDS. The crisis is likely to worsen, as the HIV infection level among people aged 20 to 30 is approaching 50 percent.
"HIV/AIDS has brought suffering to many children in Swaziland because their parents are infected with HIV and AIDS - children struggle on their own to fend for themselves. AIDS has not only taken away parents, but also older brothers and sisters. Other factors like poverty and food insecurity have compounded their misery," said Sibongile Hlope, director of the Baphalali Red Cross Society.
"The government of Swaziland has initiated a national support programme to pay school fees for OVC from primary to high school level, but the constraints of inadequate clothing, food and unaddressed trauma still keep many children out of school," she added.
The Red Cross not only pitches in with tuition fees but also food and other material needs to complement existing health and care programmes.
The pilot programme is just a start: of the just 86 OVC in the capital, whose school fees paid by the programme, only seven receive school uniforms, while 147 OVC in the southern provincial capital, Nhlangano, receive school uniforms, but no school fees.
Vusi Ngwenya, 17, needs R3,000 (about US$420) - about two month's take-home pay for a labourer - to pay his secondary school fees. The government has offered to pay half the amount. Vusi volunteers at the Red Cross centre, where he receives food aid but gets no assistance with schooling.
"I do not know if I'll be getting food here next month," he said. When told of Vusi's insecurity, Ndibanne nodded her head as she took an inventory of maize meal sacks piled up to the ceiling in a storeroom, and said, "I must tell him that the programme will leave no beneficiary behind as it expands to take in other children."
The list of beneficiaries was drawn up after surveys in Mbabane, Nhlangano, the northern town of Pigg's Peak, the eastern provincial capital, Siteki, and the central commercial town of Manzini.
OVC in these towns congregate at the Red Cross division centres, which received electrical, painting and plumbing renovations, as well as sound systems and pre-school games. "All these centres are clinics. The children have their health needs taken care of, but they are not hospitals. There are nurses, but no doctors, and no laboratories. Children with medical emergencies are taken by our ambulances to the government hospitals," said Ndibanne.
The Red Cross pilot project complements programmes run by the government, UNICEF and other child welfare NGOs, to bring assistance to the children. "The OVC issue is a big problem that requires a long-term solution," Education Minister Themba Msibi said recently.
At Mahwalala, Sipho's aunt directed their wheelbarrow filled with his goods to the bus stop on the dirt street that runs past the Red Cross clinic. He shares in her mud brick shack in the township. Ndibanne commented, "In Swaziland almost all children are part of an extended family. There was no such thing as an orphan before AIDS, because the children were absorbed into their relatives' households."
But increased poverty - Swaziland's economy has experienced a decade-long slide - and AIDS have sapped relatives' ability to take in so many new orphans.
"This is where organisational donations come in," said Ndibanne, because once operations are set up and running, it would be a matter of drawing in more financial support to expand the programme.