The only thing that 11-year-old Hope* likes about school is the playground game called Ba.
She struggles with schoolwork and has been unable to progress beyond Grade Two although her nine-year-old sister, Anna, has already skipped ahead to Grade Three.
‘Learning gives me problems,’ Hope whispers, her eyes filling with tears.
Hope and Anna’s mother died of AIDS three years ago. Hope is also living with HIV and has battled with a variety of serious illnesses throughout her short life.
From 2006 when she was just 23, Noluthando Sithole has been mothering her two little sisters, moving from the family home in Matatiele to Pietermaritzburg to care for them after their mother died.
‘I didn’t know that Hope also had the disease,’ says Noluthando. ‘She was often very sick but our mother did not say anything. The clinic says she knew from 2003 that she and Hope were infected. They should have got treatment from that time but my mother just kept quiet.’
Hope is now on antiretroviral medication and Noluthando says that she is now much healthier. But developmental delays are common in children living with HIV, and Hope may never complete school.
After moving to Edendale township, Noluthando also had her own child, a boy now aged three.
The four live in one room which, although immaculately kept, is made of mud and needs constant repairing. Noluthando has pinned up sheets of silver paper around the only bed to prevent mud from falling on it.
The Sitholes have very little. A shard of mirror and a tub of camphor cream sit on a bedside box. Five big buckets along the wall contain water from a nearby communal tap. Three shiny aluminium pots sit on a stand.
‘It was very difficult looking after these children to begin with,’ says Noluthando. ‘We were struggling, begging from neighbours. Just relying on my son’s Child Support Grant of R240 that sometimes came and sometimes didn’t.’
Last year, someone told her about the children’s relief organisation, Thandanani, and she turned up at staff member Agnes Mkhize’s home one evening to ask for help.
‘Things got much easier when Thandanani started to help,’ says Noluthando.
In October, thanks to Thandanani, Noluthando finally got Foster Care Grants for each of the two girls, so the family now has a stable monthly income of R1 360.
In another part of Dambuza, Zachariah Mthembu sits outside next to his vegetable patch fanning away the heat. He has lost three daughters to AIDS in the past four years. Now he spends his old age fretting about how to support his nine grandchildren, aged between one and 25 years of age.
The five youngest children shift restlessly on rickety benches while their grandfather speaks. Thabani, who turns two on Boxing Day, cries a lot. His main carer is his sister Lindy, who lispingly insists that she’s 12 although her brothers say she’s only 10.
As soon as Mthembu is distracted, the children scatter to play.
‘See how they disappear,’ Mthembu sighs. ‘It is very hard to keep track of them.’
Instead of chasing after the children, Mthembu has turned his attention to growing vegetables to feed the family with seedlings provided by Thandanani.
The entire family of 14 ‘ which includes Zachariah’s last two surviving children and a nephew ‘ depends on R3 185 a month.
This comes from his wife’s meagre salary of R2000, half a pension and one foster care grant.
‘They took away half my pension because my wife works for the government so they can see we are getting some money,’ says Mthembu.
Thandanani’s Mkhize says that the family has not been able to get more grants yet because some of the children don’t have the right papers.
‘We have managed to get a foster grant for this boy, but not yet for his sister. Their mother passed away in 2005,’ says Mkhize, indicating to Sam and Thembi.
‘The delay with the other three is that their father is unknown. Their mother was staying with him but when she passed away last year, the children came here and he disappeared. Before we can apply for the foster grant for them, we need their full birth certificates. Each one costs R80 to get and it is taking a long time to get them.’
To tide the family over until the grants are processed, Thandanani gives them monthly food vouchers of R600.
‘The sugar has run out and tomorrow there was going to be no mealie meal,’ says Mthembu in gratitude when he gets the vouchers which have to last until after Christmas.
Thandanani’s aim is to help communities and families to take care of orphans and vulnerable children themselves, rather than removing them and putting them into orphanages.
A network of 150 volunteers in 17 communities in Mzunduzi (Pietermaritzburg) and the more rural Richmond, identify orphans and children living with very sick parents and report them to staff who then visit the children.
HIV has bitten deeply into the Msunduzi community, which has the worst antenatal HIV prevalence rate in the country — four out of 10 pregnant women are HIV positive, according to the District Health Barometer.
While antiretroviral medication is available at Edendale Hospital, many people in the district are still dying of AIDS and Mkhize says her volunteers find at least one orphan a week in the four areas where she works.
Thandanani’s main form of support for families caring for orphans. It also helps with emergency food relief until desperate families get grants, food gardens, school uniforms and negotiating school fee exemptions for the children.
Children and caregivers are also given bereavement counselling and life skills training.
Sadly, although Thandanani offers relief to over 2 600 orphans and vulnerable children in both the Msunduzi and Richmond, the organisation is battling to sustain its funding base.
The recession has hit its donors badly and left the organisation floundering without adequate cash.
Staff members have taken a 20 percent pay cut and are working a four-day week as a short-term solution to the funding crisis. The organisation doesn’t have the capacity to support any more households.
‘The recession has had a big impact on our funders because many of them depend on donations from individuals,’ says Bheki Madide, the organisation’s communications officer.
Countrywide, HIV/AIDS organisations are struggling to sustain their programmes because of waning donor support.
But the impact of HIV/AIDS on children is getting worse. By 2015, a third of all South African children will have lost at least one parent to HIV/AIDS, according to the latest South Africa Survey released by the SA Institute of Race Relations. ‘ Health-e News.
* Names of children changed at Thandanani’s request.