Growing number of Aids orphans threatens Malawi

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 August, 2006, 12:00am

One, dressed in faded blue shorts and a frayed button-down blue Oxford shirt, twirls and skips on bare tiptoes.

The other, sick of answering uncomfortable questions - 'Where are you from, where do you go to school, who looks after you?' - has scampered across the street. They might be eight or nine, but they tell social worker Norrah Nyanoungwe that they are 11 and 13.

They both have dry, ashy skin and no shoes. They give their names as Gifty and Lyton, but they don't answer to them.

'Who takes care of you?' Ms Nyanoungwe asks the younger boy, still twirling around the sidewalk.


'Does she know you're here?' she asks in Chichewa, the local language.

'She sent me,' he replies.

It is still early in the month, but Ms Nyanoungwe suspects the family is already out of money. The boys have been sent to beg.

Aids has taken its deadly toll in Malawi, one of the world's 10 most impoverished nations, where one in seven people is suspected to be infected with HIV. The disease has robbed at least a million children of at least one parent. Some 12 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to HIV; that number balloons to 15 million worldwide.

While the world invests in the search for low-cost drugs and viable vaccines, the number of children orphaned by the disease is expected to swell to 18 million in the next five years. The first generation of children orphaned by Aids is now old enough to leave orphans of their own.

'There are so many now, it is not like before,' said John Makina, programme manager with Oxfam in Malawi.

Children used to be absorbed by the remaining family, an aunt or grandmother, for example, so their numbers weren't so pronounced.

The number of grassroots organisations meant to keep children from falling through the gaps has mushroomed, often operating on a shoestring budget. 'They are the ones feeling the pandemic, sometimes more than the people who are dying,' Mr Makina said.

Despite numerous reports warning of the escalating number of orphaned children, there are no concrete plans to deal with the problem, few governments willing to tackle it and virtually no comprehensive plans from agencies like Unicef.

'Ten or 15 years down the road when the full impact [of the pandemic] is felt, and the full impact of the orphans is felt, no one really knows what to anticipate,' said Stephen Lewis, the UN special envoy on HIV/Aids.

There are increased reports of children being left to fend for themselves. Those who work with orphaned children say those taken in by relatives are treated more and more as cheap labour.

'If you take them, it must be of some benefit to you,' said Ken Mkwinda, executive director of the Chisomo Children's Club, which sends social workers like Ms Nyanoungwe onto the streets of Malawi's three main cities to interview children and help them get back home to their villages.

'It's a tough life, however, some of them say it's a good life because of some of their experiences at home,' Mr Mkwinda said. 'They have been abused or they may have no food. When they're on the street, they get money and they're free to use that money without someone trying to stop them.'

Three years ago, Kazembo Afiki walked away from a great-aunt's house. He was sick of living with nothing, surrounded by 11 other equally squalid children, seven of them orphans like him.

He'd been caught stealing from neighbours and had been beaten by an uncle who later took off and abandoned the family. So Kazembo ran away, with a hazy plan to go to the city and find work. He was 12.

'They feel if they move out of the village, they feel like they might survive by begging. Because of the economic pressure on the village, they feel like they cannot take on extra children,' Mr Mkwinda said.

After running away from an aunt in Blantyre who beat and starved him, Kazembo ended up living on the street, unloading trucks in exchange for a few coins and bills. As soon as the sun faded, the nightmare of bullying began, as older street kids roughed him up to steal his earnings.

Kazembo was petrified he was going to die and, at the first opportunity, he went back home and back to school, where he's now the top of his class.

Some kids can find themselves reunited with their families in as little as four days, but lately it's getting harder and harder to convince children to return home, Mr Mkwinda said. 'It's a gloomy picture in the sense that if the government does not take the initiative - along with [non-governmental organisations] - that could be a lost generation,' he said.