As Zimbabwe’s children struggle with economic hardship, their suffering is exacerbated by the world’s fourth worst rate of HIV infection. This in turn has led to a collapsing life expectancy which has left almost a million Zimbabwean children (one in five) as orphans. The numbers are grisly, but the human face behind them can be astonishingly hopeful.
At a time when parents are increasingly concerned about the pressures on adolescent children, it is worth thinking of 16-year-old Kristen.
Every day Kristen begins by fetching water, then waking her two younger brothers, getting them ready for school, making them breakfast and then walking with them to class. Despite the death of both her parents three years ago, Kristen manages to continue her own studies, before heading home after school to tend to the small vegetable garden that helps provide for herself and her brothers. She then collects firewood, prepares dinner, and lends a hand with the boys’ homework. At around 11pm, when most 16-year-olds are sound asleep, Kristen begins her own homework. Six hours later her day begins again.
It is an enormous burden to place on her slight shoulders; a burden repeated with terrifying regularity across a country ravaged by HIV/AIDS. It is, however, a burden the European Commission through ECHO is helping to balance.
The Masiye Camp in southern Zimbabwe was set up to counsel orphans from across Zimbabwe. Utilising games, song, dance and theatre, the camps focus on grief management, personal growth, HIV/AIDS prevention and puberty. Through training facilitators at the Masiye Camp, the methodology has spread across the country, enabling. children such as Kristen to attend a camp in their local districts. “Zimbabwe, indeed the entire region, faces a monumental struggle to cope with the rising tide of orphans to HIV/AIDS,” says ECHO’s expert Aadrian Sullivan. “This is why projects such as the Masiye Camp are so critical. They are helping Zimbabwe’s children not only cope, but to prosper in immensely difficult circumstances.”
ECHO’s current support to UNICEF Zimbabwe’s Child Protection is €501,000. This follows €535,000 in 2004. ECHO has also just given €1.1 million for UNICEF’s nutrition work in Zimbabwe and €471,000 for water and sanitation.
Last week Kristen, and 125 children like her, spent five days and nights at the camp. There they played games and did activities that teach life skills, build self-esteem, and develop problem-solving capabilities. These may sound like everyday habits for everyday situations, but when you are 16 years old and head of your household, your ability to manage everything from hygiene to homework, and farming to finances, determines your family’s future.
“We aim to make children strong once again,” says Masiye’s head of training, Frederick Mabikwa, who has benefited from ECHO-funded UNICEF training. “These children have no one to talk to about their sexuality; no one to guide them in life skills, no one to tell them how on earth they should run a household, and no one to help with their grief.
“Many of these orphans come here having never been allowed to talk about the death of their parents. We start by giving bereavement counseling and giving the children an outlet for their emotion. There are many tears, but being open helps them a lot and begins the healing process.”
For Kristen, after many years of silent suffering, Masiye represented her first chance to get psychosocial support. Kristen’s mother died giving birth to her. Her father then remarried and had Kristen’s two half-brothers with his new wife. However, some years ago Kristen’s father got very sick (probably HIV/AIDS) and died. Two days after he died, and unable to cope with the loss, Kristen’s step-mother committed suicide. Within the space of 48 hours Kristen’s life had morphed from sister and daughter, to mother. Tears swell in her eyes as she tells me this, but a smile returns when I ask whether her brothers are good boys or not. “Ahh, they both study well,” she says, “but they are still boys!”
But now, for five days, Kristen does not have to wake up and begin the long task of household chores and looking after boys. Instead she starts with a hot breakfast, then joins her group and begins the day’s activities. Her favourite so far? “I’d have to say the treasure hunt. It taught me that valuable things in life must be looked for; and that you must look for them with determination and patience.”
Kristen pauses, reflecting on her choice of ‘favourite’, and then says: “No, hang on, maybe the best thing was the play we produced yesterday. It gave me ideas on how I must not only look after my little brothers, but also that I must look after myself. That I am also important.”
To an outsider, that much is clear. Kristen is a star. A highly motivated girl, with responsibilities that would test someone twice her age. But without family, Kristen risks losing both her childhood and her sense of accomplishment. This is where Masiye Camps support her, and tens of thousands like her. Although the camps can only meet a fraction of Zimbabwe’s need, they boost their coverage by taking the skills learned from the camps to the communities. After each camp, eight of the best students from each district are made ‘focal points’ back in their home communities. “This is how we can reach more and more children,” says Mabikwa. “But there are just so many who need support …so many special children out there whose potential bellies their problems.”
Which brings us back to Kristen. “I want to be the best person I can,” she tells me, on her way to another activity. “I want to continue going to school, I want to see my brothers do well at school, and I want to help all three of us make something of our situation. This week has begun all that for me.”
James Elder, UNICEF Zimbabwe