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.

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.

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.

Mabaso, a retired nurse, bought one of Finetown's larger houses with her husband in 1999. It was the first time she had neighbors who lived in shacks, she says, and she worried about the children she saw walking to and from these flimsy structures. She started standing by her gate with soup and bread, and began talking with the growing number of children who flocked to her house.

"I would ask them, 'Where is your mom?' They would say, 'My mom is sleeping. She is not well,' " Mabaso recalls. She started going to the children's homes and found parents who were immobilized by AIDS. Sometimes there were no parents at all.

Soon, children would line up down the street, waiting for her soup. She let some come into the house to take naps. When she started hearing horror stories of little children being raped – a dangerous myth here is that sleeping with a virgin will cure AIDS – she spread word that the neighborhood toddlers should spend their days at her place.

Her husband, who died in 2004, was not pleased. "He didn't want all of this," she says. "I said, 'There's nothing to discuss.' "

But she did agree that the demand was getting too big for her alone. So she started asking neighbors to join her efforts.

"I was not working, and I saw that here in Finetown, people were suffering," says Poppy Dhlamini, one of the first volunteers to join Mabaso. "Of course I wanted to help."

There are now 50 neighborhood volunteers who work with Mabaso, feeding children, counseling them, and checking on the shacks where they know people are sick.

Earlier this year, Mabaso moved across the street, and now has a full-time nursery school in her backyard. Three times a day, volunteers dish out food paid for by the small donations Mabaso collects. They call their group "Zenzele," which means "do it yourself" in Zulu.

Mabaso estimates that over time, some 1,700 orphans have come to her for food. She also has 20 children who live with her full time – and she says she'd have more if she could afford the additional beds.

These are children like Jonathan Phiri, a 12-year-old from Malawi who came to South Africa three years ago with his grandmother. After Jonathan's mother, who was still in Malawi, and his grandmother both died in February, he went to live in a shack with his 86-year-old great-grandmother.

It was an impossible situation, Mabaso says. The elderly woman was unable to care for Jonathan, who was born with only one leg. He was not going to school and was hungry. Mabaso spoke to the great-grandmother, and then invited Jonathan to stay with her. "I feel like it's my family now," Jonathan says.

On the other side of the patio, 10-year-old Seun Marou plays jacks with a pile of small rocks. His mother died a few months ago; he and his 12-year-old sister have no other family. He has sad eyes that seem to brighten only when he starts talking about his favorite sport, soccer.

Seun and his sister live with Mabaso now. When asked when he will go elsewhere, Mabaso replies, "When he finishes school and he can stand on his own."

Lunch is finally ready, and one of Mabaso's helpers hands Seun a plate of pap, the starch staple of South Africa, and stew. He smiles slightly. "They are looking after me," he says.

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