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Last update: 1 July 2022 h. 10:44
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A ray of hope for Aids orphans

Providing education and food to a growing population of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) is an almost overwhelming task for this small kingdom. But the government has not given up.
James Hall

With only about 900 000 residents, Swaziland faces an influx of 20 000 orphans a year, whose parents have died of AIDS. By 2010, there will be 120 000 orphans, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF.

“Government doesn’t have the resources that are needed. It’s a matter of making appeals to the international community, and use what funds we receive imaginatively,” an official with the finance ministry said.

Education Minister Constance Simelane ordered school headmasters to admit OVC at the beginning of the school year in January, and promised to provide for the orphans’ fees. A special fund for OVC’s educational needs was included in this year’s government budget.

However, the Swaziland Association of School Headmasters complained that government’s allotment for OVCs was insufficient: The school heads had understood that bursary amounts would depend on fees charged at particular schools, which can be twice as high in urban public schools compared to rural schools, and four times as high in private secondary schools.

In response, Dr. Alan Brody, Swaziland UNICEF country representative said: “We all want to see an education system that works, but we also want to see an education system that supports justice and equality in society. We hope the head teachers association can rethink its position, and see themselves as partners and leaders in this crisis, and not look at this as business as usual.”

Brody felt that because of the wide disparity in school fees, private schools should provide bursaries to OVC, and not expect government to shoulder the entire burden. “This is a shared responsibility, and in our work we have worked with many headmasters who have a heart for OVC, and have done all they can,” said Brody.

Dr. Derek Von Wissell, director of the National Emergency Response Committee on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA), said that funding for OVC’s education would remain a perennial problem until universal education is given to all children, as it is in Lesotho. “We need free education here. That will end the problem,” he said.

A portion of $7 million in Global Fund monies sought for this year’s national AIDS programmes will be distributed by NERCHA to NGOs and community organisations dealing with orphans, an area Von Wissell said is currently under funded.

“Particularly younger children development is critical. We will be training foster mothers, and facilitate programmes targeting orphan aid in four areas: economic empowerment, which is primarily getting orphans an education; food; psycho-social support; and socialisation, teaching life skills to children who literally don’t know how to wipe their behinds because there is no one around to show them these basics,” said Von Wissell.

The Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has called for its subsidies to be used for a “revitalisation of traditional feeding structures.” For Swaziland’s orphans, Global Fund grants were used last year to plant 194 fields whose harvests, brought in by community volunteers, were used for OVCs. In 2004, 324 fields have been planted for OVCs, and are expected to reap harvests despite drought conditions that have prevailed throughout the country this year.

“In Swazi law and custom, Chiefs are responsible for the welfare of orphans within their area, and although this concept has fallen away in many chiefdoms, it provides an existing basis on which to build a sustainable mechanism for the delivery of food to orphans and vulnerable children,” said Von Wissell.

Indlunkhulu means “big house,” and refers to the largest structure in a traditional Swazi homestead. Applied to a chief’s role in looking after orphans, it symbolises the shelter and protection a community offers its most vulnerable members. In olden days, orphans moved into the chief’s homestead.

Today, they are likely to remain at home under the adult supervision of community caregivers, who volunteer their services the way other community members volunteer to work the fields. Last year, 129 fields were set aside by chiefs for cultivation under the first year of the Indlunkhulu project. This year, 305 fields are being harvested out of approximately 350 chiefdoms.

“Chiefs have standing in their areas, but they are not rich. They are no better off than the people of their area. Without assistance, they could not look after all the new orphans,” said Von Wissell.

Swazi chiefs preside over the nearly 80 per cent of the population who live on communal Swazi Nation Land, mostly as subsistence farmers and in deep poverty. Two-thirds of Swazis live on less than a dollar a day, according to United Nations Development Programme data. Projects like Indlunkhulu require financial input from donor organisations.

A committee in each chieftaincy is appointed to undergo training on identifying and learning the needs of orphans. Committees are comprised of a chief’s representative, and representatives from churches, male and female youth, women’s traditional groups, schools, community police, rural health motivators, the agricultural extension service officer of the Ministry of Agriculture, and local NGOs, all of whom have some involvement in children’s welfare matters.

They are tasked with identifying OVC in their areas. The registration, intended initially to ensure that all OVC are fed, includes not only orphans whose parents have died of AIDS, but any child deemed in need of assistance.

In the Mvuma chiefdom in the mountainous northern Hhohho region, 94 children have been registered under the Indlunkhulu project. Shumba, a shy nine year-old orphan, takes seriously his role as the boy who each morning milks one of the cows donated to provide milk to OVC. “I like the emasi,” he said of the fermented sour milk drink that has the taste and consistency of soft yogurt, and is a favourite Swazi delicacy.

“I know how it is made. I know about cows,” Shumba said. He is learning through experience basic animal husbandry. Such knowledge would be part of any rural Swazi child’s upbringing. But after Shumba’s parents died, the family’s small herd of cattle – the boy recalls six cows, including a black one that was his favourite – were sold. The homestead fields lay fallow. He and his two older sisters received food from relatives, but erratically. School education for them stopped completely.


Petros Shabalala, a Mvuma resident, said, “These children, nobody sees them after their parents die. We think their relatives are looking after them. We have nothing to offer them ourselves. Then they show up, absolutely filthy, looking like animals. It’s shocking.”

When Shabalala says he has nothing to offer OVC, he is overlooking the value of his labour, bringing in the maize harvest at the Mvuma field set aside for the children. Ground nuts, sorghum, cowpeas, beans, sweet potatoes and pumpkins are grown to augment a diet heavy on maize, the Swazi staple food.

While mindful that education and jobs are essential to not only OVC but all Swazi children, Swazis have found that by turning to traditional ways, they can better assist the vulnerable Swazi child of today.

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