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Elderly bear burden of orphan crisis

[Swaziland] Babe Simelane lost his son to HIV/AIDS and must care for his granchildren.
Rural dwellers will benefit from greater faith-based initiatives (IRIN)

Ninety percent blind in both eyes, Babe (Father in SiSwati) Simelane, who estimates he is 72 years old, could make out only the roughest outline of his son's face when he died from an AIDS related illness last year, leaving two young sons.

His age and poor eyesight have made it difficult for Simelane, a widower, to support his grandchildren.

"Mandla took care of me; he brought in the harvests. Now he is dead. The boys - at least they get fed at school," said Simelane. He lives in the mountainous northern Hhohho region, where ample rainfall and a network of flowing rivers make the lush area vastly different to the drought-affected south and east.

There has been no need for relief organisations to set up general food distribution points in Hhohho, as they have in the parched regions where over a quarter of the nation's population live.

But poverty is rampant in the Hhohho region, and Simelane's two grandchildren receive breakfast and a hot lunch at their primary school, through a school-feeding programme initiated by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme. Because their grandfather earns no money, the boys' school fees are paid by a local charity.

Without government assistance or a pension scheme to support him, Simelane relies on the kindness of neighbours, who themselves are increasingly in want as the nation's economy declines (by 50 percent last year) and poverty increases (by 10 percent from 2003 to 2004).

Although 69 percent of Swazis live on less than US $1 a day, Simelane envies those who can obtain even a fraction of that amount.

"The neighbour lady ... used to bring food up to me," he said, pointing to a homestead of mud and thatch huts similar to his own, perched on a cliff below. "But she stumbled on a rock, and fractured her foot. She can no longer climb here. I feel sorry for her, and I envied the birds for eating my one meal that day."

Simelane's plight is unknown to the government, which has little to offer the elderly in terms of support.

In a country struggling to cope with an AIDS epidemic, national and donor resources have been largely directed towards assisting people living with HIV/AIDS, and supporting the growing number of children who are orphaned when their parents die of the disease.

The elderly and their needs have received little attention, though most older people are just as dependent on their HIV-infected children for support as their grandchildren.

"In traditional Swazi society, it is customary for the older women of the homestead to raise the children. This has continued in modern times - with so many unmarried young people having babies, it is the older generation that looks after them," said social welfare ministry counsellor Martha Dube.

"Everyone has been acknowledging for some time that the traditional homestead has long ago ceased to offer the social safety net it once did. Urban migration to escape rural poverty was a factor even before AIDS decimated the economically productive young and middle-aged adult population," she commented.

Social welfare workers note that attention is being given to the AIDS orphans left in the care of grandparents, but the elderly themselves are overlooked.

The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare wants to change that - they want to know who and where the Babe Simelanes of the country are.

In an interview with IRIN, Finance Minister Majozi Sithole said a database of the nation's elderly would be compiled this year, as a prerequisite for the distribution of R30 million ($4.9 million) in special funding for the elderly, included by the minister in his budget speech to parliament last week.

"In the Swazi language we have the expression, 'umuntfu lomdzala akalahlwa', which means an older person is too valuable to throw away," Sithole said. "With the change in social values, and the burden the elderly are currently facing, this expression has become even more meaningful."

Sources at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare told IRIN the database should be completed by July, while another study, to be completed by next year, will offer recommendations for new elderly support initiatives by the government.

Sithole said immediate assistance for the elderly would come in the form of cash payments. "My 90-year-old grandmother asked me to request the Social Welfare department to arrange for the elderly not only to get the cheques but also ensure they can cash them at neighbourhood community centres - it can be a long and expensive bus ride to the nearest town with a bank for many of the elderly."

He added that the plight of the elderly was being targeted as part of government's overall poverty reduction strategy.

Babe Simelane takes each day as it comes - sometimes discouraged, but not defeated. The family homestead still possesses its small fields, which could once again be cultivated for food. They were recently raided by the police, who destroyed a patch of marijuana plants someone had been growing on the land, unbeknownst to Simelane.

"I begged the police not to put chemicals on the soil so that nothing could grow again - they wanted to because I am blind and cannot see what may be going on there. I hope to rent out the field. If someone could grow maize and vegetables, and just give some of the harvest to us, it would be wonderful. But you know, this AIDS has killed off so many of the farming men - who can do it?" he asked.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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