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The Children’s Voices

Zimbabwe 6 November 2006 (continued) I am in Zimbabwe, on a search for hope so I can return to The Netherlands and write a book for teens about aids survival. I have been listening to Leonard, a mental-health nurse who works now as Monitoring and Evaluation Officer at this organization. His firsthand experience with aids orphans has granted me rare insights into the personal nightmare of aids survival among orphans. I think of the statistic of nearly 16 million aids orphans in the world. What does that number mean? I can’t get my mind around it, let alone my heart. But in talking with Leonard and hearing about this organization’s Kids’ Clubs, where children are asked what they think and feel, and then listened to, I realize I, too, am an orphan. And I may not be able to see all 16 million, but I can hear one or two, or maybe six members of this, my family.

What is this power of the children’s voices? I have hunted them down in refugee camps in Tanzania, children’s psychiatric wards in Bosnia, Sunday schools in Iraq. Am I an addict for conflict, like the journalists I meet in war zones? I think maybe instead I have had a taste of something powerful, and now I long for more. It is also a hope I carry around like a small and shameful secret, that the children’s voices will show the rest of us a way out of where we now endure.

In Zimbabwe that afternoon, at some point, I ask Leonard if I could just copy directly from his notes. I am thrilled to have found someone who shares my conviction in the power of the children’s voices. And he has not only listened to aids orphans, he has written their words down. I am so grateful for his attention to detail. His notebook contains the vein of gold I’ve come so far to mine. So here they are, stories of aids survival in the children’s own words, as recorded at the Child-centered workshop on 12-14 April, with names like Derrick, Isabel and Talent. Read this as a report, or read it as a prophecy.

The introductory notes state, . . .the children demonstrated so much emotion, spoke about very sensitive things, and developed a high degree of trust. . . . It was important for the adults at the workshop to help the children acquire skills in solving their problems. The children’s expectations, as stated before the workshop were—to be taught about aids, and particularly, how to care for those who are ill—since the children are the ones who nurse the dying. . . .There were 26 children at the workshop, about half of them had difficulty in sharing, most cried. Some said later they were touched by the other children’s stories of loss. All were crying when presenting their Trees of Life. . . .(See blog entry under Aids survival of the same title.) During the workshop the children, who began as strangers, often gave each other hugs and said things like, “I understand.” After the workshop the children said this was what they had learned about themselves: • All children have ups and downs as shown by the different direction of the branches on the Trees of Life • All the children present have lost one or both parents • Many children have many bugs (problems) in their Trees of Life.

What follows are individual case studies.

Sylvia lives with her grandmother. Both parents are dead. “I started seeing my father, who was ill, deteriorating. I thought he was going to recover, but he eventually died. It was only three months after my father’s death that my mother died also. I wish for good things in my life. What I loved the most, which of course now is not there, were my parents.”

Mthabisi is 17. He is still in school. His father died when he was seven. He was born asthmatic and may be mentally disabled, but may also just be severely traumatized. His father hanged himself after discovering his mother had had an affair. “Children know about this.”

Isabel is 16. “My parents had a very good relationship with each other. Losing my father caused great grief and pain. What I used to do when my father was alive I don’t do anymore, as my mother cannot afford to take good care of us. My father died when I was 13. I never used to walk barefooted, but now I walk barefooted. The bad things I do not want in my life include being infected with ‘this’ disease that has killed many. My problems are with school fees. I am an obedient child and my mother has managed to take care of me.”

Mthabisi is 14. “My father died—life became difficult indeed because I stayed home for a month without going to school. Since my father died, I am not well settled inside my heart—I feel extreme pain because my father loved me so much—he used to meet all my needs. But now I am always sent away from school because of nonpayment of school fees. My father’s wish was for me to pass my exams (O and A-level) so I can become a doctor. I wish to be loved by my extended family.”

Isabel. “My mother died when I was 9 and my father continued to teach me until secondary school level, when he then also passed away. My granny continued paying my school fees. Four years ago my father started coughing like my mother and after a year my father followed my mother. It was 2001 by then. I have got a problem of thinking of my mother, even at school, sometimes I do not even put much concentration into when I am learning.”

Musawenkosi is the firstborn in a family of five children. “I lost my father. I have such a hard and difficult kind of life. One difficulty I met was that during the time when my father was alive—my mother used to harass me so much—I really did not know what to do. She used to give me such a hard time—beating me up.”

Talent is 16. “My father died when I was 12. When I do something wrong my mother always shouts at me, telling or reminding me about my dad. This thing really hurts me. She also does not want me to visit my relatives.”

Abigail is 15. “My father stays in town. We now stay with my stepmother. My mother passed away when I was 10. When she died she was already in separation with my father. My mother used to work in Botswana. The day I will never forget is 5 May 2000, when I turned 10, five years ago, when for the first time in my life, a birthday party was held for me.”

Linda. “The day I faced a challenge in my life was when my mother got ill, complaining of a headache (at that time we were just small kids—there was no other adult at home). I was the eldest at home—I sent her to hospital and they gave her tablets then she recovered. I then went to call my father who was in town (at work) to come and see my mother. He came, left us some money, then went back—but as soon as he left my mother got ill again. This time she died. My father also got ill and died while we were staying with our grandmother. This troubled me so much. We got support from my grandmother and uncle.”

Sihingile is 16. Her father died when she was 10. “I did my grade 7 (13 years old) and passed very well, but I failed to get a single person to congratulate me with a present. I don’t have enough clothes and money for school fees. This causes me to lose sleep—and I am bothered by staying with someone who is not my parent. If only my father was alive, I was not going to have all these bad experiences.”

Xolani’s father died in 1986. “I had an operation after an injury. This was painful, but I managed to overcome the problem. The other pain I felt was when my father and younger brother passed away. I felt like killing myself. My dream for the future is I wish to study at the University of Zimbabwe and be a pilot.”

Thando. “I have a problem because both my parents have died—I never knew my mother. My father died three years ago, so I was raised by a surrogate mother and I was harassed for a long time by this mother.”

Isabel. “My father was a nurse at the hospital—so there was one woman who was suffering from TB who infected my father with TB which made him to be ill and eventually died to his death when I was 9.”

Buhlebenkosi’s father is alive, but her mother is dead. “I normally suffer from many physical ailments.”

Mkhokheli. Both parents dead. Left school at some point due to serious illness.

Viola. Mother died when she was 11. Currently staying with grandmother. Both parents dead.

Anonymous. Both parents died, stays with grandmother. “If I start to hear about my father whom I never knew, tears well up in my eyes—I only knew my mother. What causes me to hurt are children who normally say my mother was bad and had many sins when she died. I am constantly ill.”

Even now, in The Netherlands, 11 weeks later, as I type these words by orphans, tears fill my eyes. My pastor’s wife says there is nothing wrong with this wellspring of weeping I’ve brought home with me. She says it’s the rest of the world; there’s something wrong with the rest of us because we don’t cry, as we should, for these children.

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