To be an orphan

Increasingly prevalent among the problems that beset the continent of Africa is the rising morbidity as a consequence of HIV/AIDS, and the impact this is having on generations of children, from new born to adulthood.

The term ‘AIDS orphan’, coined perhaps 10 years ago describes a child below the age of 15 who has lost one of more parents as a result of HIV/AIDS. Richard Stearns, CEO of World Vision said:

“….I believe that this could very well be looked on as the sin of our generation . . . and our children 40 or 50 years from now will ask ‘what did you do while 40 million children became orphans in Africa?’ “

Recent statistics issued by UNICEF, estimate the total number of African children who may now be AIDS orphans ( a child who has lost at least one parent as a result of AIDS) to be 40 million in Africa of which 20 million live in sub-saharan Africa.
These numbers are staggering and difficult to understand.

Nelson Mandela, the much loved South African humanitarian, once equated the world to a human body. He said that in the same way that a human body cannot deny the impact of gangrene in a limb, the world cannot ignore the consequences of this scourge in Africa. To do so is not just immoral, it imperils us all.

So let's think for a moment about these millions of children. What exactly does it mean to be orphaned. The likelihood is that few of us know children who have been orphaned. Most of us may know adults whose parents have died. In fact many of us may have parents who have died and we still miss them daily and wish they were in our lives.

If we do know orphaned children, that would likely mean we knew their parents and of the tragedy that beset them and their family, leaving a young family of orphans behind.

It is easy to imagine the grief at such a funeral service of friends and family, not just at the loss of the parents, but for the loss these children face. We would be overcome with emotions as we observed these young children during the service projecting the difficulties they must endure without their beloved parents to guide them. The poignancy of their loss would reduce most of us to tears.

Let's take this analogy a little further. Perhaps as we think about this, we have imagined, with some relief, that the parents' brothers and sisters, the children's uncles and aunts are sitting next to them, and will, without thought, embrace these small children into their family. But what if this family has been so beset by tragedy that all but one of the parent's siblings are dead and the remaining brother is mortally ill.

Perhaps then in their community, responsible citizens would look out for them? But we soon learn that the parents have left no money, they don't own a property, and as rent will no longer be paid, the children must leave their home with immediate effect. In fact, the family only survived from the work that the parents did. Furthermore this community has been so beset with tragedy that the local school teacher, community leaders and most of the heads of the families within it are also all dead.

Their remains just the grieving mother of the children's father, who has now buried the last of her children and must add to those other children she is already looking after, these newly orphaned children. She has little money as in the past her sons provided for her from the income they earned and now they are all dead.

During this story, we may have been imagining a sudden death of the parents. But what if the father had lain dying an agonising death over a long period of months, even years, without the benefits of modern pain relief? The family are already exposed to increased poverty without their father's income. Tragically, their mother is infected with the same illness as their father and although she struggles to look after her children, she soon becomes so ill she cannot leave her bed.

The oldest child is 6 when his parents become very ill. Soon he is responsible for feeding his parents and his two siblings. The youngest is only 18 months old.
And now after their parents have both died within a short space of time, the youngest child is found to be infected with the same disease.

Multiply this nightmare scenario by millions.

In South Africa alone, here are an estimated 118 500 children living in 66,500 child-headed families.

That is families led by children from as young as ten looking after siblings and other orphaned children. HIV may be the major contributing factor to their predicament but poverty keeps them trapped in a world of destitution.

In the face of this overwhelming and mostly hidden tragedy, how can we make a difference?
How must we all become responsible for communicating to others the grief and sadness of so many young children losing their parents, their support networks, their chance of education? And, in so doing, spur a grassroots movement that will, at the very least bring attention to this modern tragedy.

AllforOrphans, together with KasCare, our charity to help AIDS orphans, its' twin programs KasKids and knit-a-square.com and the world wide community they have spawned are an effort to start that process.