With the number of AIDS orphans steadily rising, many church and community groups have taken it upon themselves to care for the children. For example, near Durban, South Africa, one group is helping orphans remember the past and prepare for the future.
Sinosizo is a Zulu word meaning, “We help.” It’s also the name of a home-based care program operating in ten townships and settlements in and around the city of Durban. One part of the program is the Orphans and Vulnerable Children’s Project, which currently cares for about two thousand AIDS orphans.
Sinosizo Director, Elizabeth Towell, says among the critical needs of children is help in dealing with grief.
She says, "Often they don’t know why their parents are dying. They don’t get told it’s AIDS. They don’t get told very much in actual fact because culturally children are not included in the dying process. So this is trying to sensitize the community - to say children have to be involved if they’ve got to actually cope with the situation."
Ms. Towell says the children themselves dictate what topics are discussed during bereavement counseling.
She says, "Most of them say they want to be part of the family. Because although they’ve been adopted into the extended family, they don’t have any status left. And so they’re kind of last in line to get anything. And so, they miss their parents where they had some status in the household. They were the children of that home. So they miss that. And so we need to give them better communication and survival skills to cope with that. Many of the children in the groups just say they just want one meal a day."
That message can be seen in the children’s artwork, which is done as part of grief therapy.
Ms. Towell, "Some of their art will show us very sad pictures of children fighting for food. And we say, tell us what you’re drawing and they’ll say: “Well, this is me fighting with my sister because she got the food yesterday and I need it today.” You see, so they take it in turns to get the food. And then they fight because they’re hungry. This all comes up in the artwork."
Sinosizo also makes use of memory boxes. Volunteers work with terminally ill parents and their children to express their feelings for one another by gathering mementos.
She says, "The idea is for the parents to put in the family names, the most important documents or copies of the documents that will be needed later on for the child. Together with family photographs, together with a text done on tape if they want or on videotape, whichever they like. The children are part of it. They decorate the box and they write letters. Say the father has died already, they’ll write letter to their father, as they would have liked to have done, and tell him all the things they wanted to tell him. So they write that and put it in the box."
The parents will also leave messages for their children, expressing their love and their hopes for their children’s future. Elizabeth Towell says this builds resilience in the children and makes them feel they are part of a family. She says this helps them withstand the stigma of HIV/AIDS.
Ms. Towell says, "The poorer the area, the more open they are about their HIV status, and then children help one another. Where you have a little bit more income or maybe more to lose, I don’t know, then the stigma is much greater. Yeah, they really are teased by their peers."
She says many people in South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal Province have a fatalistic attitude about AIDS, because they see so many of their neighbors dying. That, and the fear of stigma, prevent many who are infected with the AIDS virus from seeking treatment, which could prolong their lives.
The director of Sinosizo has been working to fight HIV/AIDS for the past sixteen years. She says just preparing for the “sheer number of AIDS orphans” that is expected is a “never ending challenge.”