what are we to do when our children are dying?

Yesterday the headlines in South Africa’s Times newspaper read, “Our children are dying.” In South Africa 75,000 children die before they turn 5 each year. As one of 12 countries, South Africa has a rising child mortality rate. Of these 12 countries the top causes of a rise in child mortality is war and HIV/AIDS (and the UN Security Council disregarded HIV/AIDS as not important enough). The statistics come from a report released two days ago by the national health department, the Medical Research Council and the University of Pretoria.

South Africa is experiencing one of the most severe HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world. It is said that one in five people in South Africa has HIV/AIDS. The Avert organization cites sources that say more South Africans spend time at funerals than they do “shopping or having barbecues” and “twice as many people have been to funerals in the past month than have been to a wedding.” In 1992, Nelson Mandela took the first big steps to deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis when he addressed the National AIDS Convention of South Africa (NACOSA) to develop a national strategy. In six years (1996-2001) the HIV prevalence rate among pregnant women doubled and since 2002 has steadily increased. In 2003, South Africa announced a plan to provide antiretroviral treatment to the public. Following in 2004, the South African government’s treatment program began in Gauteng Province and soon included other Provinces. In 2005 the prevalence rate was at a high of over 30% in pregnant mothers.

Why has South Africa faced such a difficult and severe epidemic? Why has it taken so long to get a government response prepared? During the time period of the 1990s into 2003 South Africa was in the midst of major political and social turmoil. While HIV/AIDS was a growing problem, the political issues were at the forefront. Responses to and a recognition of the epidemic was glancing at best. The fall of apartheid allowed leaders to focus on dealing with the epidemic and Mandela led the charge. However the leaders that followed were far from Mandela’s original plan. In 2000, President Mbeki denied, in front of the UN Assembly, that HIV caused AIDS. He had put together a committee of AIDS deniers to advise his HIV/AIDS response plan. Mbeki denied that HIV caused AIDS and instead focused on the idea that poverty was to blame. While the official position of the government has been stated as “HIV causes AIDS” (2002), Mbeki continues to question such a strong correlation. In other headlines that spread across the globe, former Deputy-President, Jacob Zuma went on trial for the rape of an HIV positive woman. In the court questioning he told the court that, “he thought the risk from HIV was small, and that he had taken a shower immediately after the sexual intercourse on the night in question, because – he believed – it was one thing that might reduce the chances of contracting HIV.”

As with many health and development topics there is no clear cut issue to focus on and so if you want to talk comprehensively about HIV/AIDS in South Africa you have to talk about the effectiveness of treatment programs, the stigma of the disease, the rape and sexual abuse of women from gender inequality, the inadequacy of school systems, the responses of government, HIV testing programs, and the effects of HIV/AIDS on children. This last issue I will focus more.

Today I am flying to South Africa to work for the next three months at a care center in a remote (urban) informal settlement called Zonkizizwe. Zonkiziwe is in the Ekurhuleni township in Gauteng Province. The center assists children affected by HIV/AIDS and as you can guess that is every child. With the statistic that one in five people are infected there is no way that each child is not potentially already infected, has lost a parent, or knows someone who is affected. Many women who are HIV positive do not receive the drugs that they need and so the disease is passed on to their babies – thus creating one of highest child infection rates. In a Department of Health survey (2006), it was found that 260,000 children under age 15 were living with HIV in South Africa. In Zonkizizwe this prevalence rate coupled with a poor schooling system is contributing to a ‘hopeless’ outlook for the future. Life in a township is difficult with poverty and inadequate schooling, but when HIV/AIDS is added into the equation there are lost parents, children missing school to work, and children infected without testing or treatment available. On being hopeless, Justice Cameron said, “We don’t accept ‘sad realities’ in South Africa. If we accepted sad realities, we would still have a racist oligarchy here.”

The center, VumundzukuBya Vana “Our Children’s Future” (VVOCF), seeks to be a place where children can actualize their potential through educational programs, learning about health and nutrition, self expression, and life skills development. VVOCF has a feeding program, a school uniform fund, and a number of smaller projects to help the children of Zonkizizwe advance. VVOCF was started through a partnership fostered by Dr. Jeanne Gazel through her research of the impacts of HIV/AIDS. With her connection to VVOCF she was able to bring Zonkizizwe closer to the MSU community as a Professor and Director of MRULE (Multi-Racial Unity Living Experience) by way of a pen-pal program. I first learned of the center and got involved through the pen-pal program. This summer I am looking forward to meeting my pen-pal as well as contribute to the development of the VVOCF center. Over the three months I spend in Zonkizizwe I will be helping to develop after school programs that can continue, staff development, English instruction, possibly a book club, and setting up the internship program for other students in future years. I am excited to see Johannesburg and the surrounding area and hope to travel to see Soweto, Durban, Lesotho, and visit a friend in Mozambique.

This summer brings another new and exciting view of the African continent and I cannot wait to learn about the people and culture where I will be living. As with all my experiences I enter with an open mind and an unburdened quest to learn. While in Zonkizizwe, South Africa the majority of my time will be spent learning. Even though I am going as an intern to work there is no way that I will be the only one providing education. I am excited to learn Zulu, hone my soccer (football) skills, and learn of life in Zonkizizwe from my pen pal and all the children that I will meet.

Read the VVOCF Blog.

Join the cause on <a href="http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=4478917646
“>Facebook.

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3 Comments

  1. Alex- I’m excited to hear about your experiences in South Africa and about your new friendships at the orphanage. Thank you for starting your blogs from this trip with the numbers. It is a real important place to start, but, as you know well, not any place to stop. I look forward to your personal stories of your time in Zonkizizwe.

  2. I just came across this post and what w great read will be coming back again for an update. I read these types of blogs i my spare time as I support a non profit organization and like to see what others out there do tohttp://www.ekukhanyeni.org/pages/childhood-development

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