“Who will look after my children? ” These, the last words of a lone mother dying of AIDS, have ultimately given hope and a better life to many of Botswana’s AIDS orphans.
The statistics are chilling: twelve million children in Sub-Saharan Africa have already lost one or both parents to AIDS.
Not only do these children have to survive without one or both parents; they must also fight malnutrition, disease, violence, sexual exploitation and poverty.
Every minute, a child below the age of 15 dies of AIDS. In the face of such misery, how can one begin to offer these orphans hope and the kind of start in life that every child deserves?
Some of the answers lie in the small village of Otse, just off the main road between Zimbabwe and South Africa and18 miles from Botswana’s capital, Gaborone.
Dula Sentle (‘rest assured’ in Botswana’s native language, Setswana) is an orphan after-school care centre. Here, the affection the children receive from adults is as vital as the hot food and shelter that the centre also provides.
Gill and Brenda Fonteyn, Dula Sentle’s founders, understand only too well the desperate plight of AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa.
Most are left to the care of their increasingly exhausted and overburdened extended families. Worldwide, more than 90 percent of AIDS orphans are cared for by the extended family.
As the grandparents grow old and die, the number of defenceless grandchildren is growing.
Reminiscent of Dickensian Britain, some orphans have no choice but to share their government-donated ‘food basket’ with other
members of the family if they are to be allowed to stay.
In its 2006 report, UNICEF indicates that millions of youngsters living with HIV/AIDS are excluded from school, healthcare and their right to a childhood.
Other orphans are placed in distant orphanages, leaving their friends and their remaining relatives behind. They are transplanted into an unknown world, compounding the trauma of losing their parents.
For orphans receiving antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, as Elizabeth Lowenthal (Baylor Children’s Clinical Centre of Excellence) points out, the rotation of children between different caregivers can jeopardize their treatment. “It is essential to educate caregivers to ensure that proper follow-up of the child is carried on when they shift”.
It is these problems that Dula Sentle has been set up to avoid. Gill and Brenda aim to keep Otse’s orphans in their own environment while supporting them in ways their extended families are not able to do: giving them a refuge, an alcohol-free place where, for a few hours every day, they can be normal children surrounded by the overwhelming love, care, respect and guidance of their new parents Rra go Shaba (Gill) and Mma go Shaba (Brenda).
Despite its diamond wealth, free public health system and stable government, Botswana has the world’s highest HIV infection rate (25 percent among 15 to 49-year olds, 36 percent among pregnant women). Otse’s population has not escaped the epidemic, which has taken a heavy toll. 10 percent of the children are HIV positive at Dula.
“Too often nowadays, our children disappear into statistics or policies” laments Brenda. So the Fonteyns have decided to raise Otse’s orphan children as their own.
“Raising children is not charity, it is our duty! In ten or fifteen years, if we don’t educate and give love to these orphans, they will be marginalized, unable to cope with the rules of our society. What shall we tell them when they ask us: ‘where were you when I needed you’?”
In 2002, the Government of Botswana donated a large plot of land so that Dula Sentle could expand.
Whilst local support was scarce at first, Gill’s flair for fundraising has brought contributions from donor agencies like the African Comprehensive HIV/AIDS Partnerships and from individuals.
Combined with the work of local staff and international volunteers, the barren plot of land has been transformed into a welcoming community-based centre. “75 to 80 percent of what you see at Dula has been made possible thanks to international funding.
Today, we still need support from donors but we are 70 percent self-sufficient through income generating activities”, Gill explains. “If only the government could support us by reducing our water, fuel and electricity bills, we could manage on our own”.
As Gill shows me around, Brenda is busy watering the orange grove that will provide the children with 400 kilos of oranges rich in vitamin C. Fresh orange juice will be sold by Dula’s oldest children at the Dula Tea Garden on the main road. “If there are any left over, we will sell them at the market to pay for fertilizers to grow the vegetables that we eat here with the children. Good nutrition is critical to keep them healthy”, says Brenda.
Here come the children! It’s quarter past twelve and the younger ones have finished school. They reach Dula Sentle in little groups, laughing and running. I chat to a group of children playing by the guest house and campsite that Gill has built to host young tourists and volunteers visiting Otse. I ask the children what they do here and what they think of Dula.
“We go to our classroom, relax, watch TV or play outside until we have lunch, then we do our homework with part time teachers and with our older brothers and sisters. They give us a hand with our work. When we have finished, we often play music, drums…. or sing with Gill. We are preparing our second CD with brand new songs. It will be ready in October or November.
Sometimes Rra go Shaba and Mma go Shaba talk to us about HIV/AIDS, giving us tips for avoiding or living with the infection. It’s not taboo. Sometimes also, we write letters to our godparents living in the USA or in Europe, to thank them for their gifts and postcards. After a big afternoon snack, at around 5 o’clock, we go home”.
Gaone Mmesi, aged 16, is here today to get the papers she needs for her passport. She is traveling to South Africa in a few days with her friends from Maruapula Secondary School, a school for hardworking and gifted students “As I was getting lots of As and Bs at school, Rra go Shaba and Mma go Shaba applied for a scholarship for me at Maruapula, like real parents do. Talking to the volunteers who helped me with my homework, they were convinced that I could do well there. I passed the entry exam like any other pupil and here I am, it’s great, it’s my first trip abroad!!”.
Thanks to the close links that Gill and Brenda have established with the teachers in local schools, they can nurture gifted children like Gaone and her 14-year-old friend Charity. Other boys and girls are following in their footsteps.
Usually, kids like them from small villages would never be able to go to a good school. By this age, most have dropped out of school to earn a living, or to look after other members of their family.
Some young girls already have their first child. The luckiest girls find their way to Mrs Nodumo Chida’s door at the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association of Botswana) where they can get accommodation for their babies while catching up with their school work during the day.
As Gill puts it, “At Dula, kids are getting better grades and there’ve been no drop-outs and no pregnancies for more than a year. That’s a sign of hope for the next generation.”
I drop into the Grasshoppers’ colourful classroom (for the 10-19 year-olds) where a young boy explains, “I like to use the computers here, we don’t have any at home. One day, I’ll specialize in information technology”. Music pours out of the Beetles’ classroom, where the 4-10 year-olds are practising for their next performance.
A volunteer is explaining the dance moves. “It’s hard to do what she (the volunteer) says, but I like the music” smiles a 6 year-old girl, showing bright white teeth.
Performing builds the children’s self-esteem and serves as a public relations message to encourage local donors. “The songs we sing, often co-written by the children, provide the children with an important vocabulary for everyday life,” enthuses Gill.
Music also helps kids deal with grief. One song, ‘Sometimes’, was co-written by the children to describe their own story. The song is about grief: “I’ll never never forget you.
No matter where I am, no matter what I do, no matter where I go, you will always be with me.” That song-writing session marked the first time that many of the children openly cried for their parents.
Less melodious is the high-pitched whine emanating from the furniture workshop where 19-year-old Kelebogile is cutting wood to make furniture. It will be sold in the showroom next to Dula Tea Garden. “I am learning a real job here. Have you seen the inlaid-work table that we have done, how do you like it? It took us many hours to make, but we are very proud of the result!”
“Gill is promoting Dula Sentle in Gaborone and on his website, to attract tourists in Otse. When I am old enough, I’ll become a tourist guide. I’ll take them for mountain hiking. We have the highest hills in Botswana and each of them has a legend” says another child.
This is another of Dula’s accomplishments: giving kids pride in learning a skill and earning a wage, building independence and the means for moving beyond the street and its dangers.
As well as teaching Otse’s orphans, Dula Sentle is building up the skill-base of the wider community. This is a good use of funds, and will help to ensure the sustainability of Gill and Brenda’s project.
Later this year, Dula Sentle, along with PACT (Teenage Mothers & Peer Approach to Counselling by Teens) and BOTUSA (Botswana/US of America Partnership), will start an outreach training and mentorship program to strengthen 30 orphan care projects and train 96 orphan care providers, thereby directly and indirectly improving the lives of approximately 4,000 orphaned children.
With personal will, dedication and roughly 2 euros a day per child, Gill and Brenda are showing the world that life can be better for these victims of the horrendous disease that is HIV. That young mother’s death was not in vain.