‘€œI’€™ve drawn a bird because I can sing like one,’€ says Philisiwe shyly, as she gives her plump yellow bird blue wings.

Zanele pastes the picture of a glamorous woman on to her piece of paper ‘€œbecause I want to be like her’€, while S’€™bo draws his dream car.

The crowd of children, aged between 10 and 14, is deeply absorbed in the task of depicting the things that they like about themselves and their world.

Their world so far has not afforded them much pleasure. Every child has watched either both parents or their mother die of AIDS. After their parents died, they lost their homes and now all live in a rundown, two-roomed house in Waterfall, near Durban, called Agape.

Forty six children, from toddlers to 14-year-olds, cram into the small space each night, while a further 29 AIDS orphans spend every day at Agape, as their grannies and aunties can’€™t afford to feed or school them.

‘€œYou must see this place at night,’€ says Boni Phungula, who runs the home. ‘€œThere are mattresses everywhere.’€ Phungula sleeps in a wooden bungalow outside. Some of the older children share her bed.

Psychologist Yvonne Sliep has brought three third year psychology students from the University of Natal with her to Agape. Their aim is to help the children to deal with the discrimination they are facing as a result of being orphans. Sliep also wants the students to grapple with how to apply their skills to helping communities in a setting that is ‘€œa far cry from running a private practice’€.

The students are registered for a course called Service Learning & HIV/AIDS: Transforming Theory into Practice. Funded by the Joint Education Trust, the aim of service learning is to ‘€œencourage reconstruction and development and ensure graduates are socially responsive’€, says psychology lecturer Kerry Frizelle.

Each course is designed and offered jointly by academic staff, community members and the service sector.

Student Precious Bhengu, sporting a pierced navel and tight jeans, says she hopes to encourage the children to develop a group identity.

‘€œThey only have each other, so if they can identify with one another then this will help them to cope with the stigma of being AIDS orphans,’€ says Bhengu.

Interestingly, the stigma ‘€“ in the form of their classmates passing cruel remarks ‘€“ hinges more on the fact that they are poor than that their parents died of AIDS.

‘€œOther kids tell them that they live at Agape because they are poor and have sores on their heads,’€ says Sliep.

By trying to build the children’€™s belief in themselves and one another, Sliep hopes that this will enable them to weather some of the cruel remarks that they encounter in a society whether HIV/AIDS is still feared and denied.

Prejudice against the kids has already reared its head in the predominantly white neighbourhood since the home opened last year, says Phungula, who only gets paid an ‘€œincentive’€ for her devotion.

‘€œOne of the neighbours said the children spoil the view,’€ says Phungula. ‘€œAnother said the children steal, but his place is surrounded by an electric fence so I don’€™t know how they could. And he says they are stealing things like tiles and pipes, but why would they do that?’€

But there is also support for the home. The AIDS Foundation pays for food and school uniforms. A doctor and two nurses visit the children ‘€“ some of whom are HIV positive ‘€“ every week. The local Woolworths provides food that is past its sell-by date. The Community Chest donates R2 000 a month.

Phungula adds that the children now consider Agape (which means unconditional love) as home. ‘€œSome have been offered the chance to move to other places that are not so congested. But they have refused because they say this is now home, I am their mother and the other children are their family.’€

Phungula, her face pale with exhaustion, looks into the distance when asked about her own future. ‘€œSometimes I ask God why he brought me here, because now I can’€™t leave these children. They have already lost their parents. It would be too traumatic for them.’€
‘€“ Health-e News Service.

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