Nobody told Celina Seloma that being a foster mother would be easy.
What they did tell her, nearly four years ago, was that a little boy whose mother had neglected her children in her tin-shack house needed a new home. They told her that the mother was an alcoholic and unhealthy, hadn’t been seen for weeks, and was presumed to be well into the advanced stages of AIDS, if not already dead. Celina – whose own adult son had recently been killed in a shooting – opened her heart and took in a sickly 4-year-old boy named Gift.
Today, Gift is healthy, but challenging for Celina, who is in her late 50s. Every morning, she must wake him up at 6 to give him his state-provided antiretroviral (ARV) medication. Gift is a bright, highly energetic kid, but he has learning difficulties and at 7 years of age, he still can’t count past five and can’t write his own name.
“The teachers, they don’t deal with slow learners,” she says, making dots on a paper for Gift to copy out his name in Zulu, “Sibusiso.” “I don’t know why he’s having trouble in school. If you ask him to write, it’s like he wants to cry.”
Abandoned to foster care, Gift is considered an AIDS orphan. With some 5.7 million South Africans affected by AIDS as of 2009, most of them in their childbearing or childrearing years, South Africa has become the nation with the highest number of AIDS orphans in the world, at an estimated 1.4 million, according to the United Nations and World Health Organization. As many as 11 percent of the children of HIV patients, including Gift, are themselves HIV positive, having contracted it from their birth mothers. And it is people of modest means, like Celina and her husband, Pule Seloma, who take on that burden of looking after these AIDS orphans with little financial support from the South African government.
Gift’s life has clearly improved from the day he first arrived at Celina’s house, unbathed, hungry, and persistently ill. When diagnosed as HIV positive, Gift began receiving ARVs from a local public hospital, and his health improved. The same hospital helped Gift with a speech impediment, and today he speaks clearly. But there are no schools nearby where he can get help with his learning disabilities, and Celina and Gift’s teachers are running out of ideas.
“My main goal right now is finding the right school for him,” says Celina. “They say there is a school in Westbury [a neighborhood of Johannesburg] and near Orlando [a neighborhood in Soweto], but both of those places are far, far away.”
Far away, too, are the days when Gift was left unwatched in the tin shack of his birth mother, Queen Mphatse. Social workers took away Gift and his three older sisters from Ms. Mphatse in 2005, after a neighbor complained that the children were regularly left alone. Mphatse disappeared soon after the legal proceedings placed Gift in Celina’s care, and the sisters in the care of the St. Nicholas orphanage in Johannesburg. Ill at the time, Mphatse was assumed by social workers to have died of HIV.
But last year, Mphatse reappeared. She called up St. Nicholas home, asking to visit her children, including her only son, Gift. Somehow she obtained Celina’s phone number, and repeatedly called them, demanding to visit Gift.
Mphatse met with the social workers at the St. Nicholas, who concluded that Mphatse had gotten her life together. She had married a religious man, gotten a job, quit drinking, and had two more daughters.
But while she seemed capable of managing her own current family, St. Nicholas home manager Sesam Reuben says social workers concluded that Mphatse was in no position to look after her four older children – in part because all four seem to have learning disabilities that would not be adequately addressed by the schools in her husband’s native Limpopo Province.
Mphatse admits that she was not fit to look after her children when social workers took them away in 2005. But now she’s ready to take back her responsibilities, she says.
“I’m feeling very, very bad. If you lose a child like that, it’s not right,” she says, sitting with her two young daughters, 3-year-old Maureen and 1-1/2-year-old Jessica in front of a tiny shack too small to allow visitors. Unlike Gift, she shows no sign of the persistent illnesses that are associated with HIV. Her social worker says that she doesn’t know that her son is HIV positive, or that she might herself be HIV positive.
But she has come a long way since she met her current husband, Felix Leputu, who is a hardworking religious man. “If I can get a job, or maybe open up a business, I can get a little money and get a better place,” she says, “and then I could get my children back.”
This, of course, is Celina’s worst nightmare. “If [Gift] wants to go back to his mother when he is 18 years old, then I’m happy; I’ve done my job, and I’ve done all of this for God,” she says. “But right now, he stays here with me. I know how to look after him.”