Manzini Region, Swaziland
I first heard of SWAPOL in 2001. They came to my community and started asking us why so many children were not going to school, and I told them there was no money. We started working with SWAPOL, and SWAPOL paid for the school fees and for their uniforms, and also for the hospital fees for the children who were HIV-positive.
We joined the support group where people were told that being HIV-positive was not the end of the world, we were taught how to live positively as women with HIV in the community, and they also gave us ideas about how to generate some income.
There were so many children coming morning and afternoon to SWAPOL to take their pills. But I could see they were hungry, they weren’t eating. So I talked to SWAPOL about the problem. I volunteered and said I have a rondavel that we can use, and I can stay with the children here in my house and feed them, there is no problem. We set up the Neighbourhood Care Programme in 2001 and we are still doing it, and we look after about 45 children. I take care of the children by cooking, making sure they go to school, and looking after their health.
This comes from my own experience. I grew up in a very poor family and nobody at that time was responsible for us. So I felt the need to do something for these kids, to protect them and care for them. That is actually what keeps me going. That is what motivates me. The feeding is actually a platform where I can screen all the kids, ask them why they are not going to school, check on the status of their parents if they are still here, and if I need to I will go to see if they are bedridden and what is happening.
We are also paying school fees for the children. For some of them, if it was not for SWAPOL coming here, they would not be in school. To see the change that now they can read, they can write, they can speak English, though their parents are dead, but they manage to access education—that is what I am enjoying. These are fruits, not for my own children, but for my grandchildren and all of the children.
My own life I am not enjoying just like any other woman. My husband died, and three of my children died. I found out that I am positive and I am on treatment. I am diabetic and also taking treatment for hypertension. Aging with HIV and AIDS is more difficult due to the increased treatment I must take and dealing with the various treatment complications alongside my role as a caregiver. And I cared for so many of my family members when they were dying of AIDS. It is very emotional to lose your family, and very painful, especially to HIV. It does not happen quickly. You are caring, you are caring, you are caring, and you keep on saying “Don’t be afraid, you will be better.” And then one day you check on them and they are dead. You lose the love you had together with your family, and instead of that love you have bad memories about the disease.
You also lose your family structure. When he was alive, my husband was working, but today sometimes I don’t even have money to pay the electricity or put food on the table. I take care of six grandchildren on my own. Three of my four children died and I was the one left taking care of them. Fathers often run away in a crisis, they don’t stay to take care of children. I have no savings of my own, and the only money I have comes from the income generating activities SWAPOL supports. I get a small income to put food on the table, but it is still a struggle with my grandchildren’s clothes and school fees.
It’s the same for all of us grandmothers. At my age you don’t have much energy to take care of people, but now I have to find the energy, because if I don’t cook for these children no one will. I have to be working all the time caring for the children on every level. The people in our families who used to support us are all gone. I’m taking care of children all over again for a second time. But I find the energy from my inner strength because I believe in children, they are the future, and by helping them I am planting seeds for the future.
We are advocating now with the government, with SWAPOL’s support, to change the way that grandmothers are being given grants. The grant is supposed to help grandmothers cover the many expenses they have when they are caring for grandchildren. But there’s a problem with the law. Right now it says that you have to be at least 60 years old to receive a grant. The age must be changed to 45 or 50. Many women caring for orphans are much younger than 60 and the money comes too late. I am in my fifties now, and I have been caring for orphans already for many years, with no support from the government. I’ll still have a long time to wait if the law isn’t changed. This is a priority issue we are taking up this year. It is an election year, and we grandmothers are talking to our MPs, letting them know that if they want our votes, they must change the law.
We are not doing this because we like to lobby. HIV has robbed us of our key young people, who were working to support us. We lobby because of this situation we are in. We are old, and we are sick, but someone has to take responsibility for the orphans. By supporting the grandmothers you are supporting the orphans who are living with us. As a grandmother, I will make sure that before I sleep everyone has eaten, everyone has actually been taken care of. All of them.
Another big problem is high school. High school is too expensive, it costs 4,000 rand (about $400 cdn) and upwards, just for school fees. The income-generating project I am in only provides about 500 rand a month – and I use it to put food on the table and meet our daily needs. Primary school just teaches the basics, but you can’t get decent work just with primary school. High school equips you to make a decent living, and for the children to have good futures they must go there. Paying for high school is a huge challenge for us grandmothers. SWAPOL can only help with primary school. The government will help you sometimes if you meet certain conditions, but you need to show birth certificates and death certificates from both parents.
I was privileged the last three years to be elected as a member of the Sibovu Primary School Committee. I work to sensitize the committee about the plight of the orphans in acquiring these documents. I advocate with schools to be lenient with orphans about this requirement, since it is so hard for them to access birth certificates or death certificates of parents. Often if they exist, they are grabbed by family members to claim insurance or inheritance.
The government needs to start talking with us, with community caregivers, more, so that they know what the real problems are. Right now, what the government is doing is choosing who to pay for and who not to pay for, helping some children but not others. SWAPOL is advocating that they just eliminate all the individual fees that are creating such a problem for us. I’m doing a lot of my advocacy work now on education, because it’s the most important thing for the children. It’s the best protection we can give them for their futures, and to make sure that when we are gone, they will actually be able to take care of themselves.
Education is a huge challenge, and so is healthcare for these children. Especially for orphan children who are HIV-positive, school is not possible without free healthcare. SWAPOL has a mobile health clinic which provides children with the ARV treatment. They are screened, immunized, have growth monitoring, and are provided with the drugs for HIV right at community level. This means the children can easily walk to the SWAPOL treatment sites every month at no cost. Children are healthy because of the outreach programme.
Working with SWAPOL is really a blessing in my life, because the children are doing better now; some of them have managed to go up to university level, and some of them are working. They sometimes come here and buy me something just to show their appreciation that I took care of them. Even though we are not related, I have that passion for them, to see them being happy people even though their parents are not here.
Every year in December we come to SWAPOL and celebrate Christmas with the children. We sit together and the children are happy. You cannot tell that these are orphans because they’ve got me who is always thinking about them. For me, caring, it is my passion. SWAPOL used to have money to give us caregivers a monthly stipend, but they can’t anymore, although maybe funding will come and it will be revived. I don’t care though, I won’t stop whether I am paid or not. My passion is to see the difference in the children’s lives.