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Princess Rebecca

South Africa 2 November 2006 (continued) It is the second day of my aids survival trip in South Africa. I am sitting with Carol from Canada at a home for HIV+ babies and toddlers, listening to her stories of what she found in Sweetwater community, the nearby township, when she conducted her survey of child-headed households. These are her words: “A teenage girl and hungry brother. The neighbor looking in. Entire neighborhood suffers from hunger. They live in a mud home that is caving in. No locks.”

This issue of no locks is crucial because although some neighbors may look in on orphans living nearby, may bring food by, may offer help, other neighbors come by at night to claim payment for these kindnesses. And the children are not safe. I ask Carol what the orphans say they need most. She says security is their number-one dream. Then comes food.

She tells of a family consisting of a 9-year old, 6-year old, and 4-year old, plus 4 teens. These are the children of three sisters who died of aids. The children eat in the mornings only. When she asked the 16-year old what her dreams were, she said she really wants an education so she can get a good job and help the family. By “family” she means the other six children, her siblings and cousins. This girl has buried her mother and two aunts, yet Carol said she was strong and well-adjusted. “The smart ones sometimes find a way to cope. They are adults, not children, although she did have big dimples.”

Churches help a great deal. One church asked every member to donate 1 rand each, about 10 cents, in order to buy food for the orphans in the church. A nkosi is a chief in Zulu. An induna is a sort-of assistant chief. Carol said the indunas she met with take the very small orphans to foster homes. But it’s a juggling act because often it is a matter of time before the foster parents become ill and their children orphaned. Again. Carol’s translator is called Zanele. She has 18 children in her home and says she “loves them to bits.” Her husband is a builder, one among the new black middle class. With 18 children (most of whom are adopted orphans) Zanele says “I can’t do any more.”

The war rages on.

In Sweetwater funerals are held on Saturdays. If you see 8 tents, it means there are 8 funerals. There have been twice as many funerals this year as last year. Carol says the children all look so sad. She met 8-10-year olds who wash and feed their dying mothers. The mothers sigh at her, “What can I do for my children?” They knows what happens to children when they are gone.

Many people drink to drown their grief.

When I ask Carol how she copes, she mentioned an 8-year old asking for her mother all the time. “I ended up crying.” She said it hurt her too much. “The tears are always under the surface.” After a tough week of visits, she is tired and takes “me-time” on the weekend. She says she also has a strong support system.

“What do the children do who have no food?” I ask. They steal it. Some children are used as drug couriers. There were no stats for drug use in these areas, but orphans and other vulnerable children must pay school fees, or they are kicked out of school. Then they drop off the social radar and can be used and abused without anyone noticing. I ask in those really tough times, who helped them? She says she asks this regularly. One child told her, “Nobody helped. I had to pull it all together.” During her survey, when Carol asked, “What would have helped?” the children’s answer most often was, “Somebody who cares.” This is significant because it came before food or school fees. The drop out rate of orphans is extremely high.

I ask about the use of language. HIV is called “the sickness.” It carries a huge stigma. The children find it difficult to talk about death. They say “buried.” As in “my mother is buried.” Many are down and sad, though some are funny on the surface. The teenagers she’s met with are sometimes reckless in their search for a love of life. Some quotes of teens from her survey: • “I’m not going to jeopardize the future. I had warnings when I lost family members.” • “I saw little kids during the nineties being burned and shot, lying dead on the ground. I got no future. Enjoy today. Sex brings brief comfort. I’m going to die anyway.”

We talk about the school aids information programmes. Condoms and abstinence are spoken of commonly, but when asked what it means to be faithful, one girl told Carol it meant not to sleep with anyone but her five boyfriends. At the same time, many monogamous wives die of aids after being infected by husbands with multiple partners.

I ease into the child rapes, hardly daring to look at Carol, the subject is so painful for me. She nods. I nod. She says she has been in families where babies as young as 9 months old were raped. Boys are raped too. A 12-year old. “For five years people have known you can’t get rid of your aids by having sex with a virgin, but still it happens.”

Aubrey and I leave Carol to go downstairs and visit the “school.” Here some of the children we met at devotions are feeding dolls, starting to write on blackboards, putting together puzzles. An almost-3-year old sits at a small table drawing trees. “She’s very clever,” the volunteer from Germany tells me. When I ask this woman, in her sixties, why she is here, she says she lives very simply in Germany and saves her money to come here and volunteer with the orphans for a few months every year. I ask where she lives in Germany. It’s only a 3-hour drive from where I live in Holland. We blink at each other, trying to remember home.

“What do the toddlers play-act most often?” I ask. She says, “Eating.”

I have to say goodbye to the little ones. They’re getting too excited by the presence of Aubrey and me. I hold their hands and dance with them in a circle. We return to Gail’s office, up stairs, along hallways, who explains how children on the ARVs can sometimes return to school and live relatively normal lives. The medication does, however, make them sleepy and nauseous, angry, aggressive, and causes fevers and thrushes. She is speaking as a nurse now, “Our number-one priority is care for the children. It’s quite a job, washing 21 children.” All the bottles are sterilized. She’s on constant watch out against diarrhea and thrush. “They spread like wildfire.”

Of course, I’m realizing that disease of any kind is the great enemy of HIV+ patients. The goal is to stay healthy because there is no immune system. Most HIV+ patients die of pneumonia or TB, I’m told. Fevers are feared as harbingers of infections that turn life-threatening.

I ask about her staff. She is the only nurse at the moment. Everyone does everything. The volunteers work 3 days on, 2 days off because the work is “very strenuous and the hours are long.” Food is a huge issue, Gail says. People are often too sick to get out of bed, but must receive food and medicine. Painkillers are like gold. Her home runs on donations. Stores give them the over-dated items. ARVs are free and available at the clinics, but everything else must be paid for. Gail gives her babies multi-vitamins and tries to avoid TB treatments. Sometimes when taking the ARVs though, other dormant infections come to the surface. Then her children succumb to these new diseases brought to the surface by the ARVs. Gail says words like, “My little Amanda,” and “my eldest.”

By now I am nearly heart-dead with the implication of all we have been discussing. Out comes my question, “How do you cope?” Gail nods. Like Carol nodded. “I trust and believe God each and every day for what to do. I do all I can do. And that is all I can do. At night I think, we have won the day for now.”

I press in for the kill. “Isn’t it overwhelming?” I flinch at the look she gives me. What was I thinking? I have no idea how overwhelming it is. Still, she does me the honor of answering, “You do the best you can do with those given to you. You’ll never reach everyone. Every time I’m asked to take in a child, I pray, do I take the baby or not, Lord? If I feel at peace, I take the baby. I know God has a purpose and a plan for every child. It is heart wrenching. People ask me what I’m doing here.” She looks at me. “What I’m doing is laying a foundation for the adults who will grow out of this generation. If we can give this generation a good education and home, they will turn out. Here we provide a home for the children. I would hate this to be a big organization. These children are brothers and sisters for each other. I am their mother.”

I have no mercy. “And when they die?” But I am asking what I will do when I know the child I held that morning will not live longer than a few years. Gail says, “It is terrible. Very traumatic. Worse than losing one’s own child because we have invested so much in each child here.

“My children stay here until they die.”

I ask Gail about her own personal background. Who is this woman? Where does a heart like hers spring from? She is an MK (missionary kid) of Scottish and English parents. “I heard the call of God and didn’t have much option. The heart of God was for the leper, the downtrodden and cast out. I see the heart of God reflected in their eyes. My children’s eyes.”

We are interrupted by a volunteer who brings in a little girl. “She has a fever.” Gail stretches out her arms and takes the 3-year old onto her lap. The girl wraps her arms around Gail’s neck as Gail says, “She was nothing but two little eyes when we found her. She couldn’t move her legs. But she has blossomed and survived and gained weight. That is the upside of the ARVs. Coupled with good nutrition and cleanliness it gives them a new lease on life. The downside is the children are unhappy and throwing up and aggressive for the first 2 weeks until they adjust. Then when they gain weight, they have to adjust to a new dosage all over again.”

I watch Gail’s hand stroke the little back. Carefully braided rows of hair end in tiny ribbons. Gail adds, “The only way to be here is if you are called.”

“What’s her name?” I ask.

“We found her on a rubbish heap. Someone called us. She was without a name. Now she is my Princess Rebecca.”

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