“You cannot change Africa. But Africa will change you”.
Living in Africa has started to feel very real now. To begin with I just didn’t register the reality of the situation I am in. Now, I’m coming to terms with the fact that the children I am living, talking, and laughing with here in AACOSIDA, are all affected by HIV/AIDS. The majority of their parents have died or are too sick to care for them, and as a result they are orphaned here. Some have even inherited the same disease which killed their parents. It seems so cruel that these children, some only six years old, have to live on medication to prevent the same long, painful death their parents (and countless others) have been through. And the medication itself may save their lives in one way, but the side effects caused by the same medicine and the stigma they face also condemns it. And through no fault of their own. Even the deceased parents cannot be blamed for passing the disease, whether it be due to the fact that they didn’t have access to contraception, or that the Mother was raped. We can play the blame-game forever and get nowhere. But right now, something can be done.
This realisation began when we visited Jacinto and Annabella (two sibling orphans that Born Positive has re-homed, which my fellow volunteer Vicky has written a blog about). It was then strengthened by two twin brothers here in AACOSIDA. From the first day we arrived here, these two young boys stuck out to me. The unhappiness in their body language was unmissable. They are identical even in their posture and mannerisms. Both stand with their arms crossed tight around their small chests, shoulders curved inwards, and eyes always looking at their feet. I later learned that their names are Nando and Jerson. Their Father left them when they were very little, and now their Mother is very sick and on her deathbed due to AIDS, so now they live here in the orphanage. After that initial meeting I have gotten to see their cheeky smiles when they are up to mischief, and before you know it you’re grinning along with them without even realising. But those moments are short lived. I also learnt that they get bullied here in the orphanage. The children here behave as any other child, sometimes they get on, sometimes they don’t. But the difference here is that all the children are psychologically traumatised, so being bullied is even more damaging. For example the other day Amy and I walked into the courtyard to find one of the elder boys dragging Jerson towards the large, concrete shed used for storage. He was crying and kicking the elder boy, desperate to get out of his grasp. Amy and I quickly approached and separated the two. As Amy lead the distressed child off I became aware of another screaming voice coming from inside the locked shed. Upon unlocking the bolt of the metal door I was horrified to find Nando standing inside amongst the storage. He was hysterical. Screaming as he hugged himself and shook. I speak little Portuguese, so I was no help in trying to comfort him or calm him down. Once I helped him out, I took him to Dumsane’s wife who could look after him. This is only one example of the bullying, since then there have been various other times we have witnessed these two boys being pushed around. Being in a situation where all you want to do is help, while knowing that you cannot do anything is hard enough for anyone. But knowing that these children are still grieving the loss of one parent or both without anyone to talk to is devastating.
Since meeting them I have been in complete disbelief that these kids haven’t got any emotional support. In truth I wish I could help them, know their language fluently, or offer them somewhere where they feel safe. But there is only one person who can do that, and she is laying in a hospital bed somewhere, unable to care for her sons. In the UK, if a child’s parents pass away or are too sick to care for them they are taken to a foster home or to stay with a relative. As well as being around people they know well and staying in a positive environment, they will have access to professional counseling or therapy to help them accept the trauma. Here, however, the fate of the child varies. They may go and live with a relative, but siblings may have to be separated. They may end up in an orphanage, but only until they either find a substitute home or they have to leave due to there being few beds.
For the past few days I have been comparing Nando and Jerson’s situation here, to what would be done if it were happening in the UK. As I have mentioned, emotional support is one huge difference. But then I started to wonder what will happen because of this lack of support? Mental health appreciation is growing in the UK, with associations and charities like Time To Change, Samaritans, and Anxiety UK to mention a few. While in Mozambique it is treated like a crime, something to be hidden and locked away. If these children continue to grow up hiding their grief, it could result in a whole generation growing up with serious mental health problems. I was in fact talking to my fellow volunteer Vicky about this concern, and she told me of a friend who stayed with a host family in 2012 – also in Mozambique. The brother of the host father actually suffered from an unknown mental health condition, and due to this he was tied up in what could only be described as a shed, with just enough room to lay down. To think that he probably still lies there today due to something which he cannot control is deeply upsetting. And unfortunately, it is the fate of many others.
It is heartbreaking and sickening to witness only a glimpse of these children’s lives. But at the same time the greatest gift I will ever receive. To be inspired by only two little boys when a whole country, a whole continent cries the same message. Before my arrival in Maputo we stayed in Johannesburg for a few nights with friends. On our last night we went out for some drinks in the local bar. As we were sat, telling stories and drinking the night away, the woman we were staying with lent towards me and told me something I will never forget. She said “You cannot change Africa. But Africa will change you”. Only now am I truly realising the truth behind these words. At the time I believed her when she said it, but now not only do I see the truth, I also feel it. In my heart I already feel a change which is motivating me to use the skills I have to make a difference. No, I cannot change Africa. But I can change the lives of children in these situations, and so can you. Born Positive is working with these orphans and finding them a safe home where they can get the love and safety every child deserves. You can see the difference we’re making already on the Facebook page and this website! Great things are being achieved, but we need donations to keep them happening. What may seem like a small donation to you makes a huge difference here. So please, from Me, Amy, Vicky, Leo, and Flora here on the ground, and the children and families we are re-uniting – donate whatever you can. And thank you.