There are days when Olga Thimbela thinks it was a mistake to take in the orphaned children of her sister and her aunt. Life before the arrival of these six children – whose mothers both died of AIDS – was not easy. But after their arrival, Olga says, her life became impossible.
Today, her marriage is on the rocks, her health is suffering, her own biological children get only a fraction of her time, and her relatives all think she is rich because of the $90-per-month foster-care grants she receives for each of her schoolgoing foster children.
The strain of looking after nine children – three of her own, six of her extended family – and fending off greedy relatives has finally brought Olga to the breaking point.
“Sometimes I feel like I made a mistake to take these children,” says Olga, standing in her neat shack, her 6-month-old infant girl, Hlumelo, tied to her back with a blanket. Olga is in tears. “I think, maybe if I didn’t take these children, I could take care of my own kids. Everything is destroyed in my life. My family. My marriage. Everything.”
If Olga were the only South African woman looking after other people’s children, her story would be a mere individual tragedy. But Olga Thimbela is just one of hundreds of thousands of South Africans who are looking after the estimated 1.4 million children who have lost one or both parents because of AIDS. The majority of AIDS orphans are looked after by members of their own extended families, an extraordinary cultural generosity that many South Africans say is rooted in the philosophy of ubuntu, where individual happiness takes a back seat to collective well-being. But in a country where 43 percent of the population live below the poverty line, ubuntu means that families who are already desperately poor and barely able to feed themselves must stretch their resources even further to take in others.
When we first met Olga Thimbela and her husband, Pontsho Monamodi, in early 2007, they were a happy couple making the best they could of a difficult situation. Olga was still taking jobs as a housekeeper. Pontsho, a former South African Army reserve soldier, found unsteady employment as a security guard. Older children like 24-year-old Elizabeth and 18-year-old Thabang helped to look after younger children, and 13-year-old Bulelwa would help the children with their schoolwork.
But then, Olga says, the government grants that were intended to help Olga and Pontsho pay for the upkeep of her relatives’ children, became a source of friction in Olga’s family. In the times when Pontsho and Olga were both working, extended family members would demand their share – based on the notion that those doing well should look after those who are poorer. And when Olga or Pontsho would be temporarily out of work, Olga says, her relatives would come by and criticize them for “eating the children’s money.”
Even after Pontsho moved out in September, the couple still had hopes of holding it all together. The two sat down with a former employer of Olga’s to draw up a business plan for running a small neighborhood day-care center in Tshipesong. Olga, pregnant and frazzled, and Pontsho talked of the center – and their expected baby – as a chance to “start over” and improve their lives.
But like crabs in a barrel, Olga’s family keeps pulling Olga and Pontsho down.
“The problem is the grant,” she says, referring to the foster-care grants. “If my family knows I have come home with money, they come to get money from me. They’re always asking for money. They say, ‘You’re rich. Just go to the bank.’ ” She pauses, tears in her eyes. “Maybe it is a mistake to be a good person,” she says. “The people you help, they just hate you. They’ll want you to die.”
The constant harassment from her relatives was one reason Olga believes that Pontsho left her last September. (Pontsho – who works as a security guard at a golf course, and lives with his younger brother – agrees, but adds that Olga asked him to leave to “give her some space.”) With Pontsho gone, Olga says her family is now coming after her, undermining Olga’s authority with her children, encouraging Bulelwa (now 16 and five months pregnant) to quit school, leave home, and take as many of her foster-care-grant-bearing siblings with her as possible. (Bulelwa, who has been staying with her older sister Elizabeth in eastern Johannesburg, called Olga recently to ask forgiveness and permission to return.)
Now Olga is thinking of packing up her family and leaving the Johannesburg area and heading back to her birthplace of Pamperstadt, a day-long trip by bus from here. “I’m looking for a place back in my home area, but far away from these people,” she says.
As for her marriage to Pontsho, she hopes that he will return. “I’m still loving my husband. I’m trying to get him back. But even if he goes away, if he’s happy, I’m happy.”