South Africa has one of the highest HIV-AIDS rates in the world, with 20 percent of its people between ages 15 and 34 infected. The disease has left nearly 300,000 orphans. Many of them live in households headed by an older sibling forced by circumstance to assume the role of parent.
The eyes of the nine-year-old boy avoid those of the visitor, but he can not hide the pain that is etched on his face. Just seven months ago this boy, known as Sizwe, lost his mother to the ravages of AIDS.
He is one of a Katlehong family of three boys who, fearful of the stigma that stalks those affected by the disease, have chosen to use pseudonyms. Next is an 11-year-old known as Sipho, whose dancing eyes belie the pain that his older brother, Bongani, says he expresses in frequent bouts of crying. "This young brother Sipho, he also like to cry, 'ahhh, I want tea,'" he said.
Bongani, now 15, but first compelled by his mother's illness to assume the mantle of adult and parent at age 13, hovers between stoicism, determination, and wistfulness. He is stoic about seeing to his small family's daily routines of hygiene, nutrition, and getting to school.
He is determined to do well at school and complete his education. He is wistful about the games of soccer he no longer has time to play on the local Katlehong team known as "Come Again."
Bongani also clings to his dreams, dreams that include caring for his younger brothers. "Yes, my life I want to start to talk about my dreams, about my dreams when I grow up," said Bongani. "I wanted to be an artist and support my young brothers."
Seabi Khitsane is the program director of Heartbeat, a non-governmental organization that works with AIDS' orphans in Katlehong and four other townships. She says it is important to remember that, even with all their difficulties, these children still have their dreams. "I think people tend to overlook these things," said Seabi Khitsane. "I do not think anybody has even wondered what these children dream about. And we always look at their material needs and we do not try and plan ahead for them. And that is a problem."
Heartbeat has 3,900 children in its programs, 750 of those are in Katlehong. Heartbeat provides donations of food for the families and employs caregivers who visit each family three times a week.
Like similar organizations, Heartbeat intervenes with local authorities and schools to ensure the families receive free utilities and education. In some areas they run pre-schools which also serve as community centers for the families.
It is hoped that soon the families will be registered under the South African government's recently expanded child grant system, which will bring each family a monthly income of $18 per orphaned child.
Most of the orphaned families live in tiny shanties cobbled together with bits of scrap metal, discarded wood, and other waste material.
Inside, the ceilings and walls are lined with cardboard and where possible brightened up with colorful posters and magazine covers. They are furnished with wobbly tables and stools, and discarded mattresses and fabric. Even so, the little homes and yards are kept clean and neat and often boast small vegetable gardens to supplement the meager diets of the youthful residents.
50 kilometers west of Katlehong, in the sprawling township of Soweto, is the suburb of Doornkop. Living here is the family headed by 22-year-old Colleen Ntsuleka, an unemployed single mother who also takes care of her twin 13-year-old brothers Phulane and Thulane.
The family survives on her four-year-old daughter Ncele's $15 monthly government grant, a small vegetable garden and whatever is provided by a private organization called Humana People to People.
Ms. Ntsuleka's says it is not unusual for her family to go hungry, especially toward the end of the month. "Sometimes my brothers go to school without food because this grant only buys mealie meal [corn meal], electric [electricity] and vegetables, little vegetables," said Colleen Ntsuleka. "Mealie meal lasts maybe half a month. After half a month we do not have and wait until we get another payment for this child grant."
Ms. Ntsuleka's mother developed AIDS two years ago and died in May last year. Her eyes brim with tears as she recalls her mother's ordeal. "I tried to help, and so I used to come back from school and look after my mother and brothers," she said. "Sometimes I do not do my homework, sometimes I used to think how can I handle without her. And I told myself that God is there. We can survive without her because she was very ill. I prayed to God and said, take her because is not a person to stay because she was ill. Not a person to live, she was sick."
Workers for both organizations say that no matter how willing the youthful heads of household are to accept responsibility for themselves and their siblings, they sometime find it hard to cope with the necessities of everyday life.
To help them, the care-givers and counselors of Heartbeat and Humana People to People teach the young people about housekeeping and assist them in preparing resumes and finding jobs. They also give them advice on how to avoid crime and drugs.
But the orphans remain vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous adults. Many are robbed, some are beaten up, others are lured into prostitution or crime.
Ms Khitsane of Heartbeat says AIDS orphans must be protected and nurtured, not only because that is the right thing to do, but because they are also South Africa's future. "They are not responsible for their situation or their position and they should not be stigmatized because of the sins of their parents," she said. "They are a reminder of our social ills, and we must embrace them. Because if we do not embrace them we are faced with a ticking time bomb - we do not know when it is going to explode."
The South African government has been criticized for responding too slowly to the AIDS pandemic. But it has begun increasing the number of mother-to-child AIDS prevention programs.
There are also indications the government may provide universal anti-retroviral treatment in state medical facilities. But even if these programs are implemented immediately, the Actuarial Society of South Africa says that there could be as many as two million AIDS orphans in South Africa by the year 2015.