The challenge of raising teens in AIDS-ravaged South Africa

Thabang Thimbela's foster parents struggle to guide him and his foster sister Bulelwa through the temptations of adolescence.

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Parenting: Olga Thimbela (r.) is trying to prevent her teenage foster daughter Bulelwa and foster son Thabang from someday contracting AIDS in a country where 1 in 5 people is HIV positive.
Melanie Stetson Freeman
Thabang Thimbela is dating a girl who has a baby daughter by another father, which concerns both his foster parents.
Melanie Stetson Freeman
Thabang Thimbela and his girlfriend, Lebo, are in love, but they're waiting to have sex. Thabang's foster parents are worried about him because his mother died after being diagnosed with AIDS.
Melanie Stetson Freeman
Thabang's foster sister Bulelwa wants to be a lawyer or pilot, not a pregnant dropout.
Melanie Stetson Freeman
Teen life: Thabang chats with classmates while waiting for their math teacher.

On the way home from school, Thabang Thimbela stops off to visit his girlfriend, a few blocks from the tin shack where he and his foster parents and seven foster brothers and sisters live.

The teenager has never told his foster parents, Olga Thimbela and Pontsho Monamodi, about Lebo, but they know about her all the same.

They know she has a baby girl by another father. They know that Thabang's friends are urging him to have sex with her. And they worry that Thabang may some day suffer the same fate as his mother, who died of AIDS in June 2006.

Thabang says he's not ready to have sex with Lebo – and in any case she won't agree to it until he graduates from high school. But Thabang still says he has to hide his relationship from Olga and Pontsho. "They will shout at me," he says. "Eish, it's a problem, but I love that girl."

The Monamodis are a family brought together by AIDS, a scourge that has killed nearly 4 million South Africans in the past two decades. With four foster children from one deceased sister and two more children from a deceased aunt, Olga and Pontsho have stretched their meager resources to keep everyone fed, clothed, and in school. But as the older ones mature, the young parents are now struggling to prevent AIDS from reaching the next generation.

Raising teenagers, and guiding them to make good decisions about sex, can test parents in the best of circumstances. But the Monamodis are raising their teens in a country where an estimated 1 in 5 citizens is HIV positive, and where nearly 1,000 people die from AIDS each day. And they have the additional challenge of raising children who have recently lost the only authority figure they have ever known, their parents, to AIDS.

Together with donors like the United States and the European Union, the South African government has launched a belated all-out war on HIV, providing anti-retroviral treatment free of charge to those diagnosed with HIV and trying to prevent future transmission with a mixture of education programs promoting abstinence, faithfulness to one's partner, and the use of condoms. But with only 28 percent of those in need receiving treatment as of 2007, South Africa's parents are a more reliable source of pressure to prevent HIV from reaching a new generation.

But Thabang's foster parents wonder if they can build a rapport fast enough to influence the decisions these youngsters may soon make about having sex?

A quiet young man

At Retlamile Secondary School, Thabang sits in the back of a classroom full of 10th graders. He's not the oldest in his class, at age 19, but he is among the smallest, and his classmates tease him constantly about his clothes and his back-country accent.

Recently, when Thabang was walking home in his brand-new black dress shoes, he found himself surrounded by six boys from his school. He remembered Olga's advice. "Here in Joburg," she said, "if somebody wants something from you, you give. If you see you can run, you run. If you fight back, they gonna kill you." Thabang gave his shoes and didn't return to school for several days, both out of fear and because his school's dress code requires black dress shoes.

Thabang has few friends at the school, and his grades – never great in his small hometown of Pampierstad – have suffered since he arrived in Johannesburg. He is repeating 10th grade after failing most of his classes last year. The one teacher that Thabang actually likes is Grace Lolwane, who teaches Life Orientation, a required course that covers health issues, including the risks of unprotected sex and drug or alcohol abuse.

"Thabang, do you have a girlfriend?" asks Ms. Lolwane, during a recent counseling session.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Did you have sexual intercourse with that girl?"

"No, ma'am."

She sighs. She has no idea if she is getting through to the kids, she says, because many of them are older and ill-behaved and repeating grades or dropping out. She eyes Thabang. "But this one, he's always shy. He doesn't speak in class. Even though he has problems he doesn't come to me," she says.

The brainy girl

Compared with her older foster brother, 14-year-old Bulelwa would seem to be far from making any decision having to do with sex, protected or otherwise.

In class, she sits toward the front. At home, she hits the books and helps her siblings with their homework.

At lunch, and after school, she hangs out with a small clique of strong, assertive, academically minded girls. For these girls, boys always hover, but they never seem to have anything intelligent to say.

But statistically, a 14-year-old South African like Bulelwa is not out of the danger zone for HIV. The prevalence of HIV among 15- to 19-year-olds nationwide, according to the latest government study, is around 13 percent.

A separate study of youths aged 14 to 28 in the South African city of East London, conducted by the Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economic Research, found that one out of five male students had had 11 or more partners, and 20 percent of this number had taken no precautions against HIV infection the last time they had had sex. Their behavior was not the result of ignorance; 93 percent of respondents in the survey said they had been taught about HIV, and 83 percent said they knew someone infected with HIV.

Speaking with her Life Orientation teacher, Thabitha Mabatha, Bulelwa says there is no way she is going to fall prey to peer pressure or premarital sex. Bulelwa wants to be a lawyer or a pilot, not a pregnant school dropout.

Young girls who have sex "are not serious about life," Bulelwa says, and "the parents are spoiling them."

Bulelwa's friends' eyes roll when she talks like this, but Bulelwa is not just repeating what her teachers want to hear.

As an orphan, Bulelwa has learned to grow up fast and look after her own interests. "I want to tell them [her girlfriends] that they must not depend upon their parent, because when their parent passes away, there's no way that they can get the things that they were getting from their parent."

Ms. Mabatha, says that it's common now for kids to start having sex by age 14. "When I was in Grade 8 ... we were not so mature, we were just playing, and, you know, we used to study," says Mabatha. Society, she says, has "changed a lot. A lot. Our children will not be like us."

The parental burden

The past year has been good for Bulelwa's foster parents, Olga and Pontsho. Pontsho has found work as a security guard, a job that keeps him away from home most nights, but brings in much-needed money. Olga has found enough house-keeping work to keep her busy throughout the week.

For the first time in years, there is plenty of food, enough clothing for the children, and the family hopes to save up to pay the deposit required for hooking up their shack up to the electricity pole outside their gate.

Their biggest concern now is wisely guiding their oldest foster children. They know Thabang has a girlfriend. They worry that Bulelwa may get sidetracked by the same temptations that have brought down many.

Pontsho hopes he's a better parent than his parents were. "Our parents weren't good enough to tell us everything. So some of the things we've had to find ourselves," he says.

"The only thing that worries us is AIDS, because at least at this stage, we can't cure it. That's the problem. Even if we don't tell our kids about this thing, it's there, and it's destroying us."

Olga says she talks to both of her older children about sex, and encourages Bulelwa, especially, to continue with her education, because "if she is going to get pregnant at 14, it's not going to be good, because to be a mother, you're supposed to look after your kids."

Bulelwa is easy to talk with, Olga adds, because she's honest. But Thabang is harder, because he's a boy and he usually just answers "yes" and "no," she says. How can she get him to think more clearly about his future, if he simply won't talk, she wonders. Recently, Olga lost her temper with Thabang, when he denied persistent rumors that he has a girlfriend.

"Thabang, he is a difficult guy," says Pontsho. "Even if I'm trying, to [be friends with him], he always avoiding me."

Olga knows the cost of an early pregnancy. Even though she dropped out of school early, and never learned to read, she knows the opportunities that can come from an education.

"I want those children to be a success," says Olga. "I know Bulelwa, maybe soon she going to have a boyfriend.

"I said to Bulelwa, [When] you open your heart to someone else, you must talk to me, because you are going to get disappointed sometimes," Olga says. "You [are] going to be happy sometimes. You find the right one sometimes, and sometimes you find the wrong one.... [When] you get someone, you tell me, and I'll show you this is wrong, this is right. I've been there before ."

Fruit-seller father?

At his girlfriend's house, Thabang hangs out and giggles and holds the baby girl of his girlfriend, Lebo.

The baby's name is "Happy," and while the young mother, Lebo, is clearly smitten with her baby, she's not so taken with the baby's father, or with the majority of the men she meets.

Of Thabang, she says, "he is not a criminal, he don't like beating girls. He's a cool guy." Of the baby's father, she says, "Eish, he's not here. I don't like him. It was a mistake." And of her own father, she says, "my father is um, eish, [he's] a difficult person, but my mother likes him."

Lebo says she won't get married to Thabang, and won't have sex with him either, until he finishes school. She herself would like to finish school and go into engineering. But at 17 years old, in seventh grade, with a 2-month-old baby, the odds are stacked against her.

Thabang has less ambition for school. He'd like to set up a stall in the township and sell vegetables and apples.

It's clear why Thabang keeps coming back here. He unwinds around Lebo, becomes more confident, more responsible and caring. Lebo gives him a chance to be a man, and perhaps a good husband and father.

"The way she is, is beauty," he says. Thabang's English is broken. It's the product of a township education, and like many South Africans, Thabang mixes up the pronouns "he" and "she," because his own native Tswana language doesn't make such distinctions. "When I talk with [her], [she] understand, [she] don't treat me [bad]. [She] understand and listen."

Thabang knows he has to tell his foster parents about Lebo, and he hopes that they will not shout at him, because they will see his love for her.

"I want to tell them," he says. When the time comes, "they don't shout [at] me because they will love me, and so I will love the girl and take care of us."

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