Over the past 10 years, Francistown, in northeastern Botswana, has grown into a city. It has more buildings, schools and cars than it used to and it has a highway linking it to the capital, Gabarone. But over the same period, Francistown has also grown to become one of the worst areas of the country for HIV/ AIDS. One small volunteer group is doing its part to deal with the impact of the epidemic. VOA’s Joe De Capua reports.
The official UN estimate says nearly 36-percent of the adult population in Botswana is infected with the AIDS virus, HIV. However, that estimate is two years old and health officials fear the actual rate is much higher.
The high death rate among adults is leaving behind many orphans. Patricia Bakwinya (ba-KWEEN-ya) says as many as 40-percent of those orphans are in the northeast. She calls them “Shining Stars.” And in 1999, she founded a group in a Francistown neighborhood called “Shining Stars of Monarch.”
She says, "A lot of people were sick and dying leaving behind children, who were left without any parental guidance. And we used to see them loitering around streets. That was how I got the idea of getting some volunteers to try and get at those children. And try and give them a direction in life."
She now has 15-volunteers, six of them full time, who care for children between the ages of two and eighteen. The government of Botswana donated land for her project and the US embassy helped with various programs. For example, the embassy’s Self-Help fund purchased a porta-cabin that now serves as a day care center. Several other buildings have since been added.
Ms. Bakwinya says, "There was a high rate of HIV infection in Francistown for a very long time and we are now around the 10th year and people have started dying. And we strongly believe a lot more people have died in Francistown than in other areas. Hence, we have the largest number of orphans in the country."
In sub-Saharan Africa, extended families are often called upon to help care for the sick and dying. But Ms. Bakwinya says in recent years families have become more nuclear in nature, as people move to the city following a decline in farming. While this has brought relatives closer together, it also makes them more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.
She says, "Now, as I’m speaking, there are some households where up to six adults have died within one year from the same house."
As a result, grandparents – some in their 80’s - are now caring for young children. Ms. Bakwinya says it’s not been easy for either the grandparents or the children.
"The grandparents," she says, "also don’t cope because they have done their job looking after their children." "And we keep on changing generations. This new generation, they don’t understand the way their grandparents want them to live. Because they are trying to make them live in those years (19)40’s or so. So, that is what we are experiencing."
The Shining Stars of Monarch provides AIDS awareness training and education, and teaches life skills. The founder hopes that money will be found to allow more volunteers to be trained and the program expanded to other regions. Patricia Bakwinya says she had hoped to attend the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona so she could tell the story of her group. However, she says she has not been able to find a sponsor.