Friday, November 27, 2009

Collateral damage

One of the most difficult things to deal with in the HIV/AIDS epidemic (for me anyway) is its effect on the children. But the disease is not only affecting children through infection and death. It's also leaving behind a staggering amount of orphans.

I met a woman who was quite young and had two beautiful, well dressed, well cared for little children. They were well groomed, healthy and happy. "These aren't her own children" I was told (for we did not speak the same language). "They're her sisters' kids". There was a boy who looked to be about 2 or 3 years old and a little girl who looked about one. "Both of their mothers died of AIDS when they were very young and she's been caring for them ever since". They looked very healthy and very well adjusted. Both of them had escaped infection and to them, she was the only mother they knew. They had no memory of their real mothers.

Their fathers were still alive, but were not contributing in any way. She had apparently sued both of them for maintenance, but nothing had come of it. She had also applied for help from social services as she was very poor and could barely keep head above water. She had heard nothing from them. There is a social grant available for people taking care of orphans, but this woman did not qualify for it as these children were not technically orphans - their fathers still being alive. Although for all intents and purposes they were. I was astounded. They looked amazingly well. It was clear that this woman was not just taking care of them, but was absolutely devoted to them.

But there was more, for years ago another one of her sisters had died, also of an HIV related disease, and this woman had taken in her children as well. They were teenagers now and in high school and were basically able to take care of themselves, so to speak. One of them even had a part time job and was helping out a bit.

I did not have words. Here was a woman who was fighting a deadly disease, who had lost all her siblings, who was living on the bread line and who still had enough strength to take the best possible care of these little kids. And these children were clearly very happy. Carefree in fact. I commended her. She was doing an amazing job with them. She gave a sheepish smile.

I referred her to a social worker who managed to get her an appointment with legal aid and with another social worker who worked in her area. All I could do was try to help her fight this disease that had already decimated her family.

I wondered what treatment her sisters had sought, if any. I wondered if their efforts to get treatment had been thwarted by the South African government.

But she was getting treatment now and hopefully it wasn't too late.

She was such an impressive person. She was one of those heroes walking around in plain clothing.