Eleven-year-old Sizakele Nyawo reaches up into the thatch for a single key, and unlocks the chain threaded through the rondavel’s door.
Inside the small room, she perches on the double bed she shares with her nine-year-old sister, Nombumelelo, and her three aunts aged from 22 to 14 years old.
“My father died last Christmas time. I don’t know why,” says Sizakele, twisting her thin wrists. “I don’t know where my mother is. She went away after my father died.”
Neither her voice nor her face show any emotion, as she numbly runs through the bare facts of her young life in rural Ingwavuma, in the far north west of KwaZulu-Natal.
Her “little mother”, 22-year-old Zamokwahle, takes care of her. Her 20-year-old aunt, Thokozale, left home to look for a job and has not returned. The family has one packet of speckled beans left. Sometimes neighbours give them a bit of mielie meal.
Sizakele’s eyes wander. Her friends are waiting for her on the road. She is not used to being supervised and wants to get away to play.
Some kilometres away, in Ndumo on the Mozambican border, Dumazile Buthelezi can’t stop her tears. They fall silently, hopeless and unchecked. She turns her face away, looking far younger than 13.
But 11-year-old Lungile, shows none of her sister’s sensitivities, and assumes the position of family spokesperson, articulating her family’s meagre needs.
“We would be happy,” she says in a clear, high voice, “if we got food and some clothes. We have some clothes from our parents but they are getting old.”
Their mother died of AIDS in 1996. Since 1998, when their father died of AIDS, the five Buthelezi sisters have been living alone in their home. Bongiwe, 16, now heads the family, assisted by 15-year-old Khanyisile.
Heavy rain has made the track to their home impassable by vehicle, but the girls hardly notice the streams, mud and stones as their bare feet tramp the two-hour journey to school.
Donald Mthembu, headmaster of St Phillips School, where the youngest three Buthelezi girls attend class, says there are about 50 AIDS orphans at his school of 1242 children.
“We may not even know until a teacher sees a child without a uniform,” says Mthembu. “When the teacher tells the child to go back home to get the uniform, it is then that the child might cry and we discover that there is no one at home,” says Mthembu.
He is one of the few principals of the 83 schools in the Ingwavuma area who allows children who cannot pay the annual R30 school fees to attend his school.
The Nyawo girls were excluded from Mhlumeni Primary School this year until the Ingwavuma Orphan Care project raised their fees.
Busisiwe Nhleko’s yard in another part of Ingwavuma is deserted except for two toddlers and a grunting pig. But come the end of school, and there will be 19 children in the homestead — one small hut and a metal Zozo hut donated to her by the municipality.
Nhleko’s husband ‘ who died of AIDS in 1999 ‘ left her with 11 children. Then her sister and her husband died, and their eight children joined the household. She earns a few hundred rands a month cooking at a local school.
A young relative comes out of the hut. He is not sure of the ages of the toddlers, Zama and Khonangekosi, and initially can’t remember whether Zama is a girl or a boy. Meanwhile Khonangekosi scratches at his encrusted ear, brushing away the flies. He doesn’t know his age and doesn’t want to talk.
To the left of the Nhleko homestead is an overgrown path that leads down into a valley. About a kilometre down the path is Busisiwe Mabuyakulu’s home, where she lives with her three children.
Mabuyakulu lies on a bed made of cold drink crates and cardboard. Light shines through the holes in the mud walls of her tiny hut. She offers a dirty cloth as a seat.
“My daughter says I am [HIV] positive. But the hospital says I have TB. I don’t know. But I am sick. I have pains here,” she says indicating her chest.
The walls of her hut lean at a dangerous angle, the cane placed as reinforcement offering no defence against the torrential seasonal rains. The flimsy door offers little defence for her two daughters, aged 14 and 10, against the strangers who have come knocking when Mabuyakulu has been in hospital.
Johnson Gwala, the project co-ordinator of the Ingwavuma Orphan Care organisation, carries around a Lever Arch file that cannot close.
“I have 683 orphans in here,” says Gwala, indicating to the bulging file. “But if I stay at the office, every day I get maybe five more cases.”
His office is a small room at Mosvold Hospital, which is where the orphan care project was launched in June last year after it became clear that many children faced a future without parents in the desperately poor region.
Fourteen months ago, there were two orphans living at the hospital after their mothers had died and a few others in the community that the hospital staff knew about. Now orphans are to be found in virtually every part of Ingwavuma and child-headed households are fairly commonplace.
“Maybe it’s because we are looking for them now,” says Dr Ann Barnard, one of the founders of the orphan care project, as a way of explaining the exponential increase in the number of orphans.
But the HIV/AIDS epidemic is also reaching a stage in this province where large numbers of infected people are starting to die. Barnard predicts that, within five years, there will be 3 000 orphans in Ingwavuma alone.
The project has few funds ‘ mostly donations from overseas churches — and humble aspirations. A key goal is to enable orphans to remain in their communities.
“Many people just think about putting these children in orphanages,” says Barnard. “But it’s important for them to remain in their communities with relatives and on their land, which is often their only heritage.”
The project thus tries to support families that are struggling to cope with extra mouths to feed. They have targeted 15 of the poorest families living near the hospital as a start. These are being assisted to apply for childcare grants and to start food gardens.
But this process has been severely hampered by the fact that the project’s sole vehicle has been off the road for months.
Another serious stumbling block lies with the Department of Home Affairs. Most orphans lack birth certificates, which they need before those who care for them can apply for child support or foster care grants.
The only way to get these forms is from the local Home Affairs office. But the office has not functioned well for quite some time. In November last year, the two officials were fired for making people to pay for application forms.
Their replacements won’t even give their names, let alone give Gwala application forms for birth certificates.
The people waiting in the long queue outside the office windows (no one is allowed inside and business is conducted through the windows) name them as a Mr Buthelezi and Mr Cele.
“We are not a stationery store,” said Buthelezi, an old man with bloodshot eyes and a small beard, in response to Gwala’s appeal for a number of forms to assist the orphans.
When Gwala asks whether there is any way to speed up the processing of applications, as many orphans were really short of food, Buthelezi fixes him with a stare.
“The problem with the black man,” he enunciates coldly, “is that he does not want to listen.”
Cele says he personally takes the forms to an office in Mtubatuba where they are processed and that Gwala would not be able to go directly to that office as “it is not your responsibility to do that”. After that, the two men turn their backs and will not respond to any more questions.
Gwala, a small, intense man, shakes his head and laughs bitterly. “I took this job as a new challenge. But sometimes I get so frustrated when I see people every day with problems and I cannot help them. There is such a backlog of applications for the child support grants.”
Aside from the backlog, there are a number of problems with the actual grants. A child’s “primary caregiver” can apply for a child support grant of R100 (R110 from 1 April), but this only applies to children under the age of seven and will only be given for six children.
Foster care grants of R450 per child are also available for people caring for children that are not their own, but these are notoriously difficult to access. All grants are only available to carers over the age of 21, which excludes child-headed homes from getting such support.
Social Development Minister Zola Skweyiya says his ministry is committed to “ensuring that children each get the child support grant they are entitled to”.
But he concedes that “there are blockages concerning the children’s ability to get birth certificates” and that “there is a very big problem with Home Affairs right throughout the country.
While Skweyiya blames the slow pace of processing applications ‘ both in Home Affairs and his own department — on “a lack of facilities”, he concedes that it is “very, very difficult to change the culture of service delivery” in some offices.
“This is especially the case when the officials are in areas where they are not supervised and there are no journalists,” said Skweyiya.
Because of the problems, Skweyiya says, his department is “making money available for churches so that their members can care for poverty-stricken children, including AIDS orphans, until their grants have been processed”.
“We are appealing to the churches to reach out and swear that these children are orphans, and then we can give them money until the grants come through, and they can then account for this money.”
In addition, the entire family benefit system is being reviewed by a special Cabinet committee headed by Professor Vivienne Taylor.
Next week, (7&8 March) the department is co-hosting a special conference on children and social security, which will make proposals to Taylor’s committee on a range of issues, including orphan care.
“We are looking at all the questions and deficiencies. Because of the urgency of the issue, the committee is under pressure to finish its work before the end of July,” says Skweyiya. “Many people have pinned their hopes on this committee.”
“Government’s rural development plan will also improve the living standards of poor people, but this will take some time. But we need to give our people hope.”
But the Nyawo, Buthelezi, Nhleko and Mabuyakulu children need more than hope. They need food, clothes, security and guidance so that they can survive in a world that is not designed for the defenceless.