In the school grounds other children frolic about chasing all sorts of balls and flying insects, jumping over water puddles. They watch withdrawn, eyes cadaver-like. The radiance of childhood is missing; they don’t know whether they will live.
Their eyes mist over as they look at the surreal world. Does reality exist for them? The affected behaviour of their peers and their teachers worsen the stigma making them feel the kind of inferiority they can never overcome. The childhood confidence other children exude is alien to them in its place a void left by the lack of love and hope and spirituality. They feel God’s curse.
They are orphans and they are also HIV positive; and painfully, most already have full-blown Aids.
December 1 was World Aids Day, celebrated with pomp and circumstance round the globe. Truckloads of money and goodwill were pledged and a very good number of people have vowed to dedicate their lives to the orphans.
But it is my view that these children, victims of the sexual liberty and the moral indifference born of the disillusionment and perennial civil strife that visited Zimbabwe in the years of its political and economic decay need much more.
A few weeks ago I visited Jonas Clinic in Seke about 35 km south of Harare where 50 families received food handouts from the Jesuit Relief Fund which operates from Silveira House in Chishawasha.
Each of the children, mostly orphaned through Aids, and living in child-headed families received 10kg of maize, 5kg of corn-soya blend, 4kg of beans and 750ml of cooking oil. The corn-soya blend is a nutritious powder that can easily be made into porridge.
The Jesuits, among other projects assist Aids orphans and people living with Aids. The programme’s main thrust is to provide supplementary food assistance and help the orphans with their educational requirements by providing school fees and stationery. The programme also teaches the orphans life skills such as dressmaking, leatherwork and blacksmithing.
Another intervention is to provide sanitation by building toilets in the homes of child-headed families.
The programme benefits 1 500 people in Seke Rural, Marondera Rural and Svosve areas.
It works through District Aids Action Committees which identify the orphans and helps distribute the food and monitor the payment of school fees and the procurement of stationery.
The greatest challenge the project faces, however, is the high numbers of children needing assistance.
In this area the Jesuits are assisting only 50 people although there are a lot more in need but they simply do not have the resources to help more people.
The programme is looking at supporting child-headed families by giving them inputs such as seed and fertilisers — and skills — so that they could produce their own food through gardening and cropping.
I talked to Gogo Margret Marimbi who looks after six orphans. She was very happy with what the Jesuit fathers were doing but her tale was as sad as they come.
“Three of my children and their spouses died of Aids leaving six orphans with me. Besides running a small garden I have no other means of fending for the children so this project is a godsend.”
She said she sold the vegetables from the garden at Jambanja market in Seke township about an hour’s walk from her home. “But what I get is not much.”
Accompanied by her grandson Wilson Marimbi, who is 10 years old but looks six, Gogo Marimbi said two of her grandchildren had full-blown Aids so besides feeding them she also had to take them to Chitungwiza General Hospital now and then where they got their anti-retroviral treatment.
Nursing sister Mary Munemo, who runs Jonas Clinic, said the incidence of orphans who are also living with Aids is very high.
She said the clinic catered for 18 000 people in 20 wards of whom 800 were Aids orphans. The number could be higher but there was still a lot of denial among some people.
Sharon Chipere (35) who brought her HIV-positive son Bradwell said there were many cases in her village of people who attributed their children’s illnesses to witchcraft but more and more people were becoming aware of the prevalence of HIV and Aids.
She said she hoped more and more people would, like the Jesuits, come forward and help the people living with and Aids.
“Because of the ARVs my son has to take he has developed a huge appetite so there is never enough food in the house. I wish more and more organisations would come forward and help us with food.”
Chengetai Munzvekure who is 15 but looks 10 said she was a Form 1 pupil at Chikonde Secondary School but had difficulty attending class because she did not have school uniforms and shoes.
Kudos for the Jesuits and all the other organisations that are helping children orphaned with Aids especially those who are HIV positive or have full-blown Aids.
However, I have this nagging feeling that these children need something else over and above the food, the clothing, the skills and the latrines; and I am not taking away anything from the philanthropists.
How can they be made to come to terms with the shadow of death that hangs above their heads? It is this threat more than the stigmatisation that makes their lives miserable, empty and meaningless. The next intervention in the fight against HIV and Aids should address the hollowness of these children’s existence. They deserve dignity, equality and justice.