Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Grandmothers Take on Care of AIDS Orphans

Ageing Zimbabweans being forced into surrogate motherhood by the pandemic.
By Chipo Sithole
Mbuya Motsi squints out at the drought-wasted landscape that has been home to her people for generations but now threatens to be their tomb.

The 60-year-old grandmother in Boli, near the farming town of Chiredzi, has lost her three daughters to AIDS, one in 2003, the other two in 2006, leaving her to bring up the six grandchildren they left in addition to the two daughters left by a son who died of AIDS in 2004.

In 2005, she buried another son, who left her with a grandson.

Knowing nothing about the disease and unable to afford antiretroviral drugs, she has since lost two of the children – boys aged six and nine – to AIDS. Today, she lives in a creaky two-roomed hut with the seven remaining children, all under ten years old, one of them ill with opportunistic infections compounded by poverty.

The children need to be fed and sent to school but Motsi's deceased sons and daughters left her with virtually nothing with which to bring up her grandchildren. She is only one of thousands of ageing Zimbabweans forced into surrogate motherhood by the AIDS pandemic, which is killing an estimated 3,000 people a week.

Some, according to aid workers, are caring for as many as 15 children in this, one of the African countries worst hit by the AIDS pandemic, which accounts for 70 per cent of hospital admissions. While the prevalence rate in adults has declined from a high of 18 per cent four years ago, it is still a frightening 15 per cent.

During the final stages of their illness, many return home to be cared for by their parents, bringing children, who remain with their grandparents after the parents die.

"Why should all this be happening to me?" asked Motsi. "I looked after my own children after the death of their father and I have never had any rest in my life. People of my age should be cared for by their children. I don't know why God is punishing me?"

Traditionally, Zimbabwean children have looked after their ageing parents, now, according to an aid worker with the United Nations World Food Programme, WFP, parents are far more likely to bury their children. "It’s grim," she added.

Motsi is one of many who only survive thanks to food distributed monthly by the WFP.

Down a muddy, winding road a stone's throw from Motsi's home, another grandmother, Bazaya, is caring for her three orphaned grandchildren – twins left by her daughter and son-in-law and a child left by her son, all three of the adults victims of AIDS-related illnesses.

In a country in which the average life expectancy has fallen to 36, Bazaya is an incredible 71 years old. She attributes her longevity to a traditional diet of maize, rappoko seed and beans, “not the foods you youths are eating these days”.

Despite the fact that she has lost all seven of her children and last saw her husband 20 years ago, she wears a constant smile and her wit inspires all who meet her. The three eight-year-olds who share her home laugh along with her. This family faces its daunting daily challenges with a positive spirit.

Grandmothers-as-mothers are only one of the consequences of the AIDS pandemic. Others are the 1.5-million orphans, the prevalence of child-headed households, and dying teachers.

UN children's agency, UNICEF, director Ann Veneman came face to face with some of these intractable problems on a recent mission to the country, where she visited a homecare HIV/AIDS programme in a suburb of the capital, Harare, and another programme that helps support more than 250,000 orphans and vulnerable children. UNICEF estimates that one in four children in the country – about 1.6-million – have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

"I spoke to two young boys, one in seventh grade, one in fourth grade," said Veneman after her visit. "Mom had died last year of HIV. Dad has simply left. Suddenly, these three kids had to fend for themselves. Seventeen-year-old children should be having one kind of life and it usually doesn't imply being the head of a household."

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's ongoing food crisis, which has left close to 5.5 million people in need of food aid, has exacerbated the impact of HIV/AIDS.

Food shortages rob those infected of one of the first defences against AIDS-related illnesses and early death – good nutrition.

In 2007, foreign donors gave Zimbabwe 70 million US dollars to help the impoverished country cope with the growing numbers of AIDS orphans and last week UNICEF announced a 5 million US dollar grant to help children access healthcare.

Households like those of Motsi, which have also lost their main breadwinner, are poorer and more vulnerable to starvation, with the responsibility for producing, transporting and marketing the family crop falling on shoulders growing increasingly frail.

"The lack of rain in this area has made the situation even worse," she said. "After harvesting I would normally sell part of my maize crop. But I only managed to get maize seed in December and that was too late, so there are no crops in my fields."

The result is that Motsi has been unable to pay her grandchildrens' fees at the nearby primary school for the past two terms.

This term the school is demanding payment in foreign currency, something of which she dare not even dream.

"They know that when I get the money I will pay, but at the moment, it is difficult to promise. I don't have the foreign currency they want," she said.

As she sees it, there is only one place to turn for help. "I hope that God will hear my prayers and give me more time to live and look after these innocent souls," she said, her voice wavering. "I don't want to think about what will happen to these children when I die."

Chipo Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR-trained journalist in Zimbabwe.

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