Tough life for children born into dire poverty

‘€œWhy?’€ chides Malta. ‘€œYou already ate this morning.’€

Malta holds her seventh child in her lap, feeding her with formula milk that she got from the clinic. The baby is nine months old, the same age as Malta’€™s first grandchild, born to her 19-year-old daughter, Matsietsie.

Malta gets no maintenance from the fathers of her seven children. Matsietsie, sullen in her pink pyjamas despite the late hour, refuses to give up the name of her child’€™s father, saying only that he is in Grade 12.  

In the past few years, three of Malta’€™s sisters have died and their eight children have also joined the household.

The family of 18 ‘€“ Malta, her brother and 16 children ‘€“ survive on two foster care grants and four childcare grants. By mid-month, there is no food left. Yet another baby is on the way as one of Malta’€™s teenage nieces is heavily pregnant.

The Mxhosane household is even more overloaded and chaotic. Twenty-five people live in the tiny house: Granny Mxhosane, four of her adult children and 20 grand- and great-grand-children, half of whom are under the age of six.

Anna Mxhosane explains that four of the children are orphans, inherited when her two sisters died. She indicates to the bare floor, naming each section after a child when explaining who sleeps where.

Outside, young women are washing a large quantity of clothes. Inside, mielie meal is cooking in one medium sized pot, enough for a few mouthfuls each. Granny Mxhosane kneels on the floor, washing chipped enamel mugs and plates in a basin.

Children mill about outside including three girls of primary school age who are carrying babies.

‘€œThey must have arrived late at school so they were chased away,’€ says Anna vaguely when asked why they are not at school.

There is little parental guidance in this household as the exhausted adults are locked in a daily battle simply to survive: to cook, wash and clean.

Ntswake, 18, one of the orphaned grandchildren and a mother of one, complains that her teenage relatives come home at all hours.

‘€œSometimes they come home at 1am. Some, they sleep out,’€ she says.

Anna admits she is worried that her 14-year-old daughter will get pregnant but says doesn’€™t know how to stop her.

The household survives on Granny’€™s pension of R1 100 and 13 Child Support Grants of R260 per child. This translates into less than R6 a person per day for all the essentials – food, electricity, transport, clothes and school fees.

Yet there is no systematic pooling of the grants or bulk buying of food and Anna complains that the younger mothers sometimes buy clothes not food.

In 2009, almost 38 percent of the Free State’€™s children went hungry, the highest rate in the country according to a report card released by the SA Human Rights Commission and United Nations Children’€™s Fund (Unicef) recently.

Yet three years’€™ ago, the school feeding scheme collapsed in the Free State’€™s Motheo district, which includes Botshabelo and Bloemfontein.

Mosamaria, a church-based organisation that helps families affected by HIV/AIDS in Motheo, keeps an eye on 650 children in the district with very limited funds.

Men are scarce. Unemployment is high. Alcohol abuse is common. HIV has scarred the households by removing parents and breadwinners, leaving behind children and stressed relatives, often elderly and almost always female.

‘€œOur main task is to help families to get grants,’€ explains Mosamaria’€™s CEO, Trudie Thomas. ‘€œWe run a support group for children once a week in each of the areas where we work and the kids also get food. We help out with food parcels and clothes when we can, but that depends on donations.’€

‘€œFamily planning definitely isn’€™t working here,’€ says Kelebogile Ditema, who manages Mosamaria’€™s Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) outreach project.

But she believes that there is also an emotional dimension to the high teen pregnancy rate.

‘€œSome of the teenagers really want a baby because they want someone to love and belong to, especially the ones who have lost their parents,’€ says Ditema.

But funds are drying up for Mosamaria as the US and other donor countries start to pull back their funding.

The provincial Department of Social Development, which is supposed to fund organisations like Mosamaria, is slow to fund despite promises. One church-based charity has even taken the department to court in a bid to get the money it was promised to continue to provide services to poor communities.

In the meantime, children are being born into a life that is hard and hungry and run the risk of being permanently disadvantaged as a result.    


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