A safe place for children in the Age of AIDS
One woman saw too many African kids orphaned by AIDS and decided to do something about it.
FINETOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
Winnie Mabaso seems to float through the kitchen, quietly eyeing the huge vat of porridge teetering on the small gas stove. She smiles at her helpers, who have spent the past three hours chopping carrots, and then checks her list of children's names, to see who in this impoverished township has been eating. She glances at her watch. Outside, she knows, her orphans are getting hungry.Skip to next paragraph
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Hundreds are waiting. Most are under 6 years old, because it is lunchtime and the older children are still away at school. They play on a thin metal slide that Ms. Mabaso bought for them, and run in and out of the two large shipping containers that she set up in her backyard to serve as classrooms. Later, after school, the older children will return, lining up for whatever "Mamma Winnie" can give them.
Mabaso never intended to have this type of operation, with lists and helpers and industrial-size cooking equipment – let alone the nursery school in her backyard and the 20 children sleeping in her house. But somehow, she says, what started as an impulse to give soup to a few young neighbors has grown into something else altogether – a support network for a community desperate for care.
"I never planned this," she says. "I didn't know it would get this big."
Mabaso, who is past the age when most people retire, is one of a growing number of people around southern Africa who, with little or no help from government or aid organizations, have started trying to alleviate the impact of AIDS. These grass-roots helpers, often with little money themselves, tend to be women living in areas where the disease is a constant presence, according to AIDS experts. They care for sick neighbors, feed children whose parents are bedridden, and collect clothes for orphans. Neighborhood by neighborhood, family by family, they are making Africa's Age of AIDS a bit more bearable.
"It's a regional phenomenon," says Richard Delate, spokesman for UNAIDS in southern Africa. "Especially as the burden of the epidemic deepens, the burden of care is shifting to the community. Without them I don't know where the response would be."
Sub-Saharan Africa, which has 10 percent of the world's population, is home to 60 percent of all people infected with HIV, according to the United Nations. Across the continent the statistics are sobering: Botswana – 24 percent HIV infection rate; South Africa – 5.5 million people infected, more than in any other country; Mozambique – 120,000 AIDS-related deaths a year. The social impact of those numbers is huge. Teachers, nurses, and soldiers are dying; healthcare systems are strapped; welfare networks are overwhelmed. Government and aid groups are unable to reach everyone in need of care.
Which is why people such as Mabaso have taken charge.
"There are people who need our support," says Precious Makodi, a 20-something who has joined other women in her neighborhood to start a home healthcare group. The group is based in Orange Farm, a poor township outside of Johannesburg, which now has dozens of "clients."
"They are our neighbors," she says. "They are HIV positive; they have tuberculosis. Nobody else is caring for them."
There was nobody caring for Finetown's orphans, either.
The demographics of Finetown, another settlement south of Johannesburg, have changed from white to Indian to black as South Africa moved through its recent history. It has large brick houses surrounded by aluminum-sided shacks, dirt roads, and an unemployment rate near 70 percent.