Thursday, August 21, 2008

Visits to Homesteads

Yesterday three volunteers and I made our first visits to homesteads of children who are sickly, known to be on ARTs (Anti-viral Treatment for AIDS) or have been identified by their teachers as needing help - maybe they live with gogo’s (granny’s) or maybe their parents are sick or extremely poor. These visits are the first step in implementing a grant from the National Children’s Home in the United Kingdom to identify, test and assist children that are at risk of being HIV+ or have AIDS. As a team we have also taken the stand that to help only the individual child is the wrong thing. We must look at the family, especially those who are living with uncles or aunties and look at the entir e “family.” So many programs give food to the person taking ARTs but they don’t provide food for the rest of the family. So, of course, the food gets shared with the entire family and the child who needs it for his medication doesn’t receive the nutrition he/she needs. It sounds horrible to us, but if a family of 5 is starving and you give food to only one person, you can’t expect the other 4 people to cook the food for the one person and then to sit and watch them eat that food.

We visited 4 children in their homesteads who attend Luftoja Methodist Primary School which is approximately 23 miles from St. Paul’s in Manzini. These children were identified with the help of Luftoja’s head teacher and guidance counselor (Albertinah). Albertinah is a very caring, dedicated teacher whose desire is to help the children who have nothing, are sick a lot or clearly need help. Albertinah gave up one of her days off (it is school vacation time between terms) to take us to visit these children. She also enlisted the assistance of the community’s rural health motivator. Each community / chiefdom has a rural health motivator who is appointed by the Chief. She receives some training by the government and her job is to know the health of all the families in the chiefdom. She is generally an older woman and she walks over the hills and through the streams to visit the various homes. This woman was amazing. She did make the remark that her job was easy yesterday because I was driving where she walks. Believe me, no transport other than Chris’s kombie would drive as far out as we went t o a few of these homes!

The first homestead was of a family of 4 children living alone. The mother and father have both deserted the children. There is a girl about 16 but she is no longer living in the homestead. She is living with a “boyfriend.” The children living in the homestead are a boy 14 years old and three girls, the youngest in 1st grade. These children basically survive on handouts from their neighbors and in fear of when their father does come home. The boy is not going to school because his school fees weren’t paid up las t year and so the school wouldn’t give him results for his final exams from 7th grade. These are required before the child can enroll in High School. He had a sponsor last year, but since he couldn’t get his grades, he couldn’t go to school. He sits at home all day. The three younger children seem to do above average in school. One of these children’s school fees is sponsored by World Vision.

The second homestead was that of grandparents who are taking care of 7 of their grandchildren. Two of them are double orphans. The grandmother must use crutches in order to walk. Grandparents are amazing everywhere, but especially in Swaziland. These grandparents do the best they can to care for these children and they are actually doing quite well considering the norm here. They have a vegetable garden, fruit trees, chickens and goats, etc. But the biggest thing they clearly have is love for their grandchildren and a desire to see that the children are educated and well taken care of.

The third homestead was that of two motherless families (one with 5 children and the other with 6) living on the same homestead. We actually went to visit the youngest child in one of the families who is sick a lot. He is in the first grade but hasn’t been attending school because he was hit by a car a few months ago and his leg was fractured in two places. The child started ARTs five months ago. The father is currently working at night as a security guard at a construction site in Manzini and comes home as he is able during the day. He wasn’t home yesterday. The father of the other family works in the tree farms near the South Africa border. He rarely comes home. However all of the children do attend school and seem to be doing a fairly good job of taking care of each other. The biggest need this family has, especially the one child, is food – especially vegetables and protein so his ARTs will be effective. We talked with the father this afternoon before he started work. He is trying to support his children. He made the wooden crutches his son is using to walk with. I couldn’t understand what he was saying to Thoko, but I could tell by the look in his eyes and his demeanor that he cares for his children very much and that he is doing the best he can to support them. In this country, indeed continent, where so many children are abandoned, he is doing an exceptional job under the circumstances.

The fourth homestead was that of a child who is living with his gogo. Both of his parents are deceased. You could see the love on her face for her child. In Swaziland the “aged” receive pensions from the government about every 6 months of 500 Emalangeni. (Approximately $66). The government doesn’t always pay this amount on time. But this gogo saves the little bit of cash she receives to top off her grandson’s school fees after the government pays it’s portion for the OVCs, to buy food she can’t grow, clothes and provide medical care and transport for herself and grandson. She has a beautiful garden and obviously a lot of love.

I got just a little bit of each of the families stories because most of the conversations where in SiSwait. The hardest part for me, indeed any missionary, is to resist the temptation to pull out my wallet and give each person a bundle of cash for one thing or another. But that is not the answer and for each homestead we visited there are thousands more just like these or even worse. When the population of the country is approximately 1 million and 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, you can imagine the level of need across the country. The volunteers have already started talking about how they can help the families emotionally and spiritually as well as take care of some of their physical needs. We will meet next week and discuss what the best course of care might be to assist and enable the families to meet their needs.

It was an overwhelming, long day. This first visit was just the start of future work. As always, we are going to learn as we go and take it one step at a time. But we all agree that we have to start somewhere and we have to assess what the different situations really are and what the best way to help might be. The family that takes care of 7 grandchildren, might only need some help providing shoes for their grandchildren, whereas another family might need help with food, school fees, medical care, etc. Our volunteers will visit the homesteads at least once a month to provide that emotional support, the gift of love and hope and assess if needs have changed. Even now, 24 hours after our visits, all I can really do is take a deep breath and pray for God’s help and guidance.

The pictures below are in the order of the homesteads we visited. The woman in all of the pictures that has the lavender dress on is the Rural Health Motivator. The woman in black is Albertinah. In the last picture, the three other ladies are the volunteers – Thoko, Phindile and Gladys.

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