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Lonely Heirs of AIDS

South African children whose parents die of the disease are victims of prejudice and neglect. A group trying to help is overwhelmed.

May 20, 2003|Nita Lelyveld | Times Staff Writer

SOWETO, South Africa — Seventeen-year-old Simphiwe Mtshixa sleeps each night in his parents' bed, under a maroon satin quilt embroidered with pink and white flowers. Above the bed, on an otherwise bare wall, is a small framed photograph of his mother and father on their wedding day. James, who died of AIDS in 1997, beams in his crisp black suit. Virginia, who lived four more years, wears a delicate rhinestone tiara and a strong smile.

Nearly two years ago, as his mother lay dying of AIDS, Simphiwe swallowed a pile of pills so he could die too. But he didn't.

So, since his mother's death in August 2001, Simphiwe and his 14-year-old sister, Celiwe, have lived by themselves in their parents' home on a road lined with shacks.

In South Africa, where an estimated 5 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS and few have access to antiretroviral drugs, families such as the Mtshixas are increasingly common. "Child-headed household" has become an official population category. But no one knows how many such households there are, and no one is ever likely to know. Parentless children living on their own often stay hidden -- afraid, because of community prejudice, to seek help. Last year, the University of Cape Town's Center for Actuarial Research estimated that South Africa has half a million AIDS orphans and said that, without radical changes, that number will nearly quadruple by 2015.

Simphiwe and Celiwe don't have much besides their mother's high school sports ribbons, their parents' stereo and television, and a shiny set of cookware their mother bought but said was too nice to use. They agree.

Celiwe does the cleaning, and Simphiwe cooks -- in worn, dented pots on a hot plate.

"If he's happy, he cooks really nice," Celiwe said. "If he's sad -- aaaay, aaaay -- he burns everything!"

Simphiwe, Celiwe said, is sad a lot. He is so skinny that he looks at least five years younger than he is. The children are often without food.

When Carol Dyantyi arrived at the home on a recent afternoon, she found the kitchen cupboards all but bare. On hand: a loaf of bread, two onions, a few scoops of meal, a can of juice, half a bottle of ketchup.

Dyantyi runs Ikageng Itireleng AIDS Ministry, a Soweto-based volunteer group that does its best to look out for the Mtshixas and more than 100 other AIDS orphans spread out across the vast township. The ministry finds out about the children at their parents' funerals or when its members are asked to come help a family in which an adult is dying.

The group pays the orphaned children's electricity and telephone bills, gives them money to get to and from school, brings them donated clothes and tries to keep them fed. But it isn't easy.

Dyantyi has many children to visit, she doesn't have a car, and sometimes it takes a while for her to show up.

On this afternoon, she found the children's aunt doing their laundry in the bathtub. The aunt lives in a nearby shack and tries to help out. But she is very poor, she often has to share the children's food, and -- because she has AIDS -- she and the children know that the help she offers is only temporary.

Dyantyi, who lives miles away, and this one increasingly gaunt aunt are the only positive adult presence in the children's lives.

If it takes a village to raise a child, the village is frequently absent or hostile here, Dyantyi says.

Relatives disappear after funerals or show up only to take over family homes and handouts meant for children. Neighbors pretend not to notice that no adults are living next door.

So many people in South Africa live in poverty, and everyone is scrambling to survive, Dyantyi says. It has become routine, she says, for large, hungry crowds to show up at township funerals, not to mourn the latest AIDS casualty but to eat the food laid out by the mourners.

"It is very rare, very rare when you see a neighborhood taking care of its own," said this 43-year-old, perpetually exhausted caregiver.

Her crew of 15 volunteers can do only so much with a small cache of donated food and clothing and a monthly budget, from their church, of less than $1,000. Recently, someone donated a house for an orphanage. But it's out in the middle of nowhere and needs major renovation and a staff. There's no money for either.

Dyantyi finds businesses to pay for the orphans' school uniforms and fees. She tries to keep the children in school. She tries to keep food in their bellies. Most of all, she tries to let them know they're not alone.

Across South Africa, it is frequently only volunteers such as Dyantyi who keep these children going. Although the government offers bare-bones assistance, it does so only for youngsters who can produce documents such as birth certificates. If they have no papers, and most don't, they get nothing.

At times, tears stream down Dyantyi's cheeks and her soft voice cracks as she admits that her work takes its toll.

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