Stories of Hope and Change

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A Special Information Feature brought to you by The Stephen Lewis Foundation

Without Parents but Not Without Hope

The Lukanga Swamps are a vast and remote wetland in central Zambia, home to such remarkable creatures as the Sitatunga, an antelope adapted to walking and swimming in the huge lagoons. They are also home to at least 500 households—shabby two-room mud huts—headed by orphan children. That’s a staggering number, even for Zambia, where one in seven adults is living with HIV and nearly 700,000 children have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS.

This is one half of a story that has become too familiar. The other half, less known, is the extraordinary resilience and creativity of African communities in the face of staggering devastation. Kelvin, now 15, is one example of perseverance in the face of almost unbearable loss and hardship. Kelvin and his four younger siblings were orphaned four years ago when their father, and then their stepmother, died of AIDS. The children still sorrowfully talk together about their parents’ last illness—and about the day the last relatives simply walked away with everything they could carry, leaving the four children to starve.

They didn’t starve. Kelvin learned to make mud bricks, and to gather straw to make brooms for sale in the market. And he has one great asset: a single battery. He taught himself to repair radios but, with no electricity, must test the finished work with his one battery, which he quickly removes and saves for the next job. Kelvin earns about $6 a week this way, enough to provide one meal a day for this fragile family. Kelvin was determined to attend school. With the help of CAHA, a youth-created organization that now serves 1,800 children in the area, he is continuing in high school.

Gertrude, his 13-year-old sister, stays home to make brooms, cook (vegetables, maize, beans and sometimes dried fish) and to care for Luckson, 11, Cobby, 9 and Maggy, 7, who is HIV-positive. Gertrude’s life is hard.

“The long hours of work make me sick,” she said recently. “I don’t get enough sleep”.

(No wonder. The children sleep on a bed of rags, huddled together for warmth in the rainy season).

When she can’t sell enough brooms, she has to beg the neighbours for food. She is waiting till Kelvin finishes high school and then she’ll hope for her own chance to study. Meanwhile, she is trying to learn to stop grieving. “I used to feel that my mother would come and take over, but for sure she will never.” CAHA sends a mentor three times weekly to offer guidance and practical help. Gertrude calls their mentor “Aunty”, and relies on the emotional comfort she offers, as well as the helping hands with her household burdens.

A decade ago, the youth of the Kabwe area, two hours north of Lusaka, came together to form CAHA, Central Action on HIV/AIDS Zambia, to try to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and to help the afflicted like the Mulenga children. Each service it provides—a community school; mentors who visit the orphaned children three times weekly; income-generating projects for the children—has unfolded from dire necessity and community ingenuity and leadership.

The orphans themselves, for example, choose their own mentors from a list of possible names. The CAHA staff leaves each family alone to make the choice, usually someone they know locally and can trust. The mentors are crucial to CAHA’s work. They offer the stability, the moral guidance and limit-setting, the emotional support and kindness for which parentless children yearn. Sometimes their help is more pragmatic: academic coaching, conflict resolution within households or practical help with household tasks. They come as close as is possible to replacing the lost mother and father.

The school sprang into existence to meet the children’s urgency to better themselves; they are building it themselves from mud bricks, while the first grade children are taught in a disused government building. Four times a year, CAHA holds a “fun day” when hundreds of children arrive for the egg and spoon and sack races, the small but coveted prizes and the rare moments of laughter, play and freedom.

CAHA’s ingenuity is typical of the grassroots organizations supported by the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Although the Foundation requires financial accountability and uses trained monitors to visit, assess and advise each project, the initiatives arise from the Africans themselves, and decisions are made by them.

The heart-breaking bereavement, poverty and illness that devastated these families does not mean that Africans are helpless; far from it. Thousands of community efforts have arisen to meet the onslaught of horrors, and it is they who show us, as they rise to challenge after challenge with very limited resources, that it is possible to turn the tide of AIDS. Our financial support and guidance gives them the means to achieve their own goals. Think of it as Kelvin’s battery: one little packet of energy can light a wider, brighter path to the future.