OTSE, Botswana (WOMENSENEWS)–Music thumped from large, scratchy speakers, courtesy of a popular local DJ. Most of the children laughed and danced, but Mmauwi Marwale, a pixie-faced 8-year-old with a smattering of freckles across her nose, kept to herself, watching the games from the sidelines.
"They played this song at my mother’s funeral," said Marwale suddenly, looking up from the hot pink Barbie fingernail polish, given to her by a friend, that she was carefully painting on her tiny, dirty nails. "I cried and cried, but Moetsi, she didn’t cry."
Moetsi is her 5-year-old sister. "She’s too little," the 8-year-old explained wisely in broken English. "She didn’t understand."
But Marwale understood.
Although she didn’t know it was AIDS that took her parents, she remembered her father’s death and her mother’s sickness and this song with its dance beat.
When world leaders meet later this week in Gleneagles, Scotland, for the annual summit of the G8–the world’s "group of eight" leading industrialized nations–Africa and AIDS will be at the top of the agenda. Western and African leaders will discuss how to fund ambitious plans to help the continent.
But as Mmauwi Marwale’s story illustrates, good intentions are often not enough to help the most vulnerable families affected by AIDS.
Prosperity Threatened by AIDS
With a per capital income of more than $8,000, Botswana is Africa’s wealthiest nation. But AIDS is threatening that prosperity, sending development indicators like life expectancy plummeting. A staggering 38 percent of pregnant women here are HIV positive, according to recent surveys.
The vast, arid country has a small ethnically homogenous population and a government that has used income from its rich diamond mines to build hospitals, schools and provide other social services. There are generous government-sponsored food packages for the sick and disabled, for orphans and for the aged. There is free basic medical care for all citizens and, since 2002, free antiretroviral drugs for people with AIDS.
But the drugs came too late for Marwale’s parents, who died more than three years ago, and for the parents of the other children at Dule Sentle, which means "stay well" in Setswana.
The flood of new orphans into the country has now dwindled to a trickle, but still there are those who refuse to be tested, refuse to admit that they might be infected with this deadly disease.
Despite Botswana’s relative wealth, poverty and unemployment is widespread. Marwale’s family is among the poorest in Otse, the town to which the family moved to stay with a grandmother after her father’s death.
The girls’ grandmother is a tiny woman with a face deeply grooved by time and sun, child-sized hands and a taste for traditional beer. When she has money, she leaves early in the morning to begin drinking. A cup of potent sorghum beer, brewed in someone’s yard on the poorer side of Otse, costs one Pula, about 30 cents.
Government Food Baskets
The grandmother’s house, where Marwale and her younger sister stayed–along with an older half-sister Phena and her young son–is a crumbling one-room concrete building without electricity or running water. The kitchen is a shack of rusted metal leaning against the house. Most of the food in the household comes from the food baskets that Marwale and Moetsi receive from the government.
After her family moved to Otse, Marwale avoided being at home as much as possible. She left for school with other children from the neighborhood as the sun rose, dressed in her orange school uniform, and often didn’t return until late at night. Even when Dule Sentle sent the children home before dusk, Marwale often went elsewhere.
She was not a good student and had trouble sitting still in class. But she spoke English better than any of the other children her age, largely because of Dule Sentle where her best friends, she said, were the foreign volunteers.
Sometimes she asked them if she could come and live with them. She said she didn’t like to go home because her sister beat her and her grandmother was often drunk.
Marwale’s grandmother said the girl was wild, disrespectful. "This girl, she is always running away," she said, waving her tiny hands in frustration. "She never helps at home. I never know where she is."
Custody Fights Begin
In early 2004, Marwale’s half sister, Phena, began fighting with the grandmother over custody for the children. She wanted to take the two girls away to her own father’s home in Ramotswa, a nearby town on the border with South Africa.
The fight went on for months. There were meetings with the social worker, at the village council and among family members.
Brenda Fonteyn, a local woman who founded Dule Sentle with her husband, wanted the children to stay in Otse, where at least they get two hot meals each day and have staff at the orphan center to look after them.
She had seen similar fights over other children and sometimes wonders if food packages for orphans are such a good idea.
"The only thing that they’re fighting for, as far as I can see, is the food basket," sighed Fonteyn, who tried to advocate on behalf of the children.
In Otse, Fonteyn said, the girls were safe even if they are alone. She worried that in Ramotswa–a rough city of about 20,000, with bars and slums and South African gangs–no one would look after the girls, make sure they go to school or get fed. If Marwale ran away there, she could get in trouble.
Ramotswa for Christmas
In December, the girls went to Ramotswa for Christmas and didn’t return when school began. For months, no one in Otse heard from them. Their grandmother left the village to care for her lands, where she plants corn and sorghum. No news trickled in.
Finally in May, Marwale’s neighbor tracked them down after a visit to the Ramotswa hospital.
Both girls looked healthy. There was food in the house, a sturdy, concrete building that kept out the rain, and Moetsi was going to a day care program run by an organization of women with AIDS.
But the older girl said she now had to do most of the cooking and to take care of a blind old man she called grandfather. They slept on the concrete floor, with only a single blanket to share, and Phena, the older half sister, was rarely around.
"I want to live with my grandmother in Otse," demanded Marwale. "I want to go to Dule Sentle."
Nicole Itano is a freelance reporter based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is writing a book about AIDS in Africa and has been visiting Otse for the past year.
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