Country's first urban OVC care centre rising to the needs

[Swaziland] ovc at a Neighbourhood Care Point.
Vulnerable children at a Neighbourhood Care Point (IRIN)

Gigi's Place is an unlikely name for Swaziland's first urban community care centre for orphans and vulnerable children, but it has put down roots in the gritty community it serves and celebrated its second anniversary at the weekend.

"I apologise for naming Gigi's Place after myself," said Gigi Nkosi, a fashion doyen and socialite who founded the centre, "but I am capitalising on my 'celebrity status' here in Swaziland to attract donors. We are entirely donor funded, and the corporations have been supportive."

The centre in the KaKhoza informal settlement outside the commercial hub of Manzini provides meals, clothing and shelter to about 100 children every day and has attracted the interest of health and social welfare agencies.

"We have a growing number of children who have no parents or guardians, who migrate to towns, and struggle to survive on the street", said social welfare worker Belinda Dlamini.

The Swazis have traditionally been a rural nation, so urban problems are new and require new approaches, Dlamini said. Gigi's Place grew as a result of the double impact of HIV/AIDS and deepening poverty.

"I began Gigi's Place after I visited a friend who lived in KaKhoza just outside Manzini. I saw all these neglected, ragged children who were not going to school and had no place to play. They obviously had nutritional and health needs," said Nkosi.

The small dirt playground in front of a cement-block classroom and an open-air cooking stall at Gigi's is the only fenced play area in the sprawling settlement. Children navigate twisting muddy alleys between dilapidated shacks or cross a highway to get to there.

"Fortunately, these kids are street-smart. We have never had an accident", Nkosi said.

Sammy, a physically challenged 10-year-old who kicks a soccer ball across the playground with agility, said, "This is the only place I have to go to - my mother works; my father is gone. There is nothing to do where we live. If I can get an education, maybe I can get a job and not have to become a criminal. There are lots of criminals in KaKhoza".

The township is not officially incorporated into Manzini city boundaries and has fallen into a grey area of non-regulation that plagues similar informal settlements located between Manzini and the capital, Mbabane, some 35 km away. These are areas where crime, AIDS and poverty are at their most extreme.

"Our centre is for all children who have needs, not only orphans - poverty has made all the children here vulnerable," said Nkosi.

Sempiwe, a shy seven year-old girl, walks a kilometre each day from the opposite end of the slum with her younger brother, drawn by the opportunity to play with other children and learn the alphabet in a quiet, orderly classroom. "I like to come here every day," she said.

Government and NGO representatives stop by frequently, taking notes. With 40 percent of Swaziland's sexually active adult population officially thought to be HIV positive, and efforts to eradicate poverty making little headway against a growing tide of urban slum dwellers, there is a pressing need to establish similar centres.

"We should not be a Manzini novelty," said Nkosi. "We should be a template for others."

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