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Villagers respond to AIDS orphans crisis

[Zimbabwe] Funeral procession Zimbabwe.
Rural Zimbabweans battle to cope without access to ARVs (UNAIDS)

Five years ago, the residents of Majini village, about 90 km from the southern border town of Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, were reluctant to talk about HIV/AIDS - now they are planning a vegetable garden to support AIDS orphans and other families affected by the disease.

"The growing number of AIDS orphans in the area made the villagers sit up and look for solutions," said Reverend Musa Makulubane at the local church, which has been proactive in trying to get residents to adopt a more responsive stance to HIV/AIDS.

In a village with a population of just over 5,000 there are about 50 AIDS orphans that the local clinic is aware of, said Tiwejuliet Mpofu, a nurse who helps run the HIV/AIDS unit. But according to villagers, the number of children affected by the disease runs into at least a thousand.

"You can see it in the school and the churches - there are many, many children living by themselves. Some of them have old grandparents, but many are by themselves," said Cynthia Gwamure, a resident who helps families affected by HIV/AIDS.

"Every week we bury someone we know - the disease is clearly among us," said Peter Sithole, whose friend died of an AIDS-related illness last month.

Another villager, Joyce Ndou, commented, "Things changed when all of us realised all us of knew someone who had the illness."

Zimbabwe has the world's fourth highest rate of HIV infection, and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that a child dies of an AIDS-related illness every 15 minutes.

The church, supported by the Lutheran Mission, has been training volunteer home-based caregivers in the village and also tries to raise funds to provide food, clothing and other support to families made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.

"The villagers are poor themselves, but they try to help however they can. They always want to know about new ways to help families living with HIV/AIDS. We make collections at the church every week - it is not a lot, but people will still give," said Makulubane. Most of the residents in arid Majini are small-scale ranchers, while a few are employed on commercial farms in the neighbourhood.

Most households have a kitchen garden, which ensures that people have access to well-balanced meals, and the villagers had planned a larger garden to support at least 100 families in the area. "We have the land - we have even got a pump to draw the water out of a borehole because there is no water, but we cannot afford fuel," explained Makulubane.

The only river near the village has dried up, so people have to rely on taps or boreholes for water.

Zimbabwe is going through a severe economic crisis with serious fuel and food shortages due to recurring droughts and the government's fast-track land redistribution programme, which have disrupted agricultural production and slashed export earnings.

Comfort, 14, lost his parents about three years ago, after they had been ill for a long time. His grandmother now looks after him and his two siblings, and earns a living from her few chickens and selling vegetables from her garden when she can.

"Now they don't let her sell anymore," said Comfort, referring to the Zimbabwean government's clampdown on informal trade - part of a national cleanup campaign that began on 19 May. Since then she has tried to sell vegetables or fruits to passers-by on the highway - some 10 km from their house.

"The villagers try to help us," he added, acknowledging their support.

Because most people in the area are ranchers, their homes are far apart, which often proves problematic for home-based caregivers. "At times it takes us days to hear [that someone needs assistance]. We wish we had a vehicle, but then, maybe not," said Makulubane, remembering that although he has a motorcycle, the costs of keeping it operational are prohibitive.

Instead, the villagers make do with donkey carts and lifts from passers-by to access more remote households.

Majini has seen "tremendous change," in the past few years, said a relief worker with a local NGO working in the Beitbridge district in Matabeleland South Province.

"Their attitude towards HIV/AIDS is exceptional in the area. They always want more information on the illness; about programmes they can get involved in. Unfortunately most of the villagers do not have access to free antiretroviral therapy. There is little we can do there."

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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