Life skills for young orphans

African groups are teaching AIDS orphans how to keep families intact.

Evrline Awino sells sugar cane on the dusty, potholed highway between Kisumu and Busia. On a good day, she makes up to 20 cents from passing motorists.

At 15, Evrline is her family's sole provider. Her father died of AIDS five years ago, her mother has it now, and her five sisters are under 10.

Evrline is one of a growing number of Kenyan children forced by the AIDS epidemic to play the part of adult at home.

And while orphanages can offer a bed and meals, aid groups are increasingly trying to salvage something lost in institutions: the warmth and support that can come only from family ties.

"These children should not be sent away to orphanages or boarding schools, because being lonely only adds to trauma," says Tobias Odero, a counselor with the Baltimore-based Christian Children's Fund (CCF).

Mr. Odero spends his days visiting the homes of the orphans in the region, assisting with finances and morale.

"When the siblings are together, they feel warmth. They can use each other for support, and share burdens. If they are separated, they are weak. They lose their roots. Children need to know where they are coming from."

Of the world's 36 million people living with AIDS, more than 70 percent of them live in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Health Organization, some 12 million children have been orphaned by the scourge.

Here in Kenya, 600 people die every day from AIDS, and surviving children are left to protect themselves and their family land. Increasingly, relatives who traditionally would take children in are simply too overwhelmed.

"We are trying to see if we can make something here work," says Rose Waringa, who heads a community-based project affiliated with CCF in the small village of Rangala.

The village lies in the western Kenya province of Nyanza, which has the highest rate of HIV infection in the country at 38 percent, compared with 14 percent elsewhere.

Since the vast majority of those infected die, she says, "the question is whether the families left alive are going to disintegrate as well."

"Also, there is the issue of property rights," says Roselyn Mutemi, UNICEF's Kenya program officer for HIV-AIDS.

"If the children leave their homes, they will lose their claim on their land, and it will be taken by relatives or other unscrupulous people. And in Kenya, if you have no land, it is like having nothing at all."

"We have been so busy dealing with the infected that we almost don't have the time for the affected," says Roselyne Okumu, chair of the Kenyan association of social workers.

"We are left with orphans hawking water or selling toilet paper on the streets so their brothers and sisters don't starve. And relatives so immune to the catastrophe that their hearts have been closed."

Ms. Okumu works with a Kenyan nongovernmental organization called Kibera Community Self Help Project (KCSHP), which operates in one of Nairobi's large slums.

Like a growing number of NGOs across the continent, KCSHP provides services for AIDS orphans and helps them stay together in family units.

The agency has set up a free school for these orphans, and offers counseling, healthcare, and classes in sewing and woodwork, for instance.

Volunteers follow the youngest orphans home to make sure they bathe and eat, and support groups are offered for the older orphans.

"We train them in self-reliance so they know they have to look after themselves; they know there is no one else who will do it," says Caroline Omondi, head of the KCSHP orphans program, who was orphaned by AIDS herself.

Staying together as a family is not easy, and it is usually the eldest child who has to sacrifice for the other children. Evrline, for example, dropped out of school to work, enabling her younger sisters to stay in school.

Her day now begins at 6 a.m., when she goes to her family's small plot of land to collect beans and corn. After sweeping the hut, she prepares tea for her sisters and porridge for her mother. She bathes everyone and dresses them before setting out to sell her sugar cane.

In the evening she prepares supper, and, with no electricity and no money to buy paraffin for the lamp, she puts everyone to bed by 7:30.

CCF provides medicine and ointments for her mother. Evrline's dainty hands are too small for the sterilized plastic gloves provided by CCF. Strapping them on with rubber bands, she talks about what it's like taking care of her family.

"I was sad to leave school," she admits. "There, I had friends. I am happy to help my family, but I wish I could go to school. I wish I had friends."

Moses Ochieng lives a few miles down the road from Evrline. He is a 16-year-old epileptic and responsible for his family of five.

Like Everline, Moses rises at 6 every morning to sweep the hut and fetch firewood. There is, however, nothing to cook at his house. The siblings go without breakfast and eat porridge for lunch. During the day, Moses puts plastic containers out in the yard, in the hope of catching rainwater.

Counselors come visit weekly, bringing beans and oil, and money for school fees.

"I have nothing here," he says, speaking with effort as he tugs at the loose threads in his oversize red wool sweater. "But I love my brothers and sisters, and my counselor told me to hold on tight to them and help them.

"I am happy about that," he adds. "I would have nothing two times over if I were not with them."

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