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article imageExclusive: Going Inside the AIDS and Orphan Epidemic in South Africa

By Alanna Wallace     Jun 10, 2008 in World
As a university student curious about the world, I left my home near Toronto, Canada and flew to South Africa. For weeks now I've seen AIDS, extreme poverty and a plague of orphans. This is your intimate look at today's South Africa.
Just as a primer, a bit about me: I'm a second-year university student studying political science and global studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. This year, I decided to go to South Africa to observe human development and the impact HIV/AIDS has had on the population first-hand. I volunteered at an orphanage and was not prepared for what I was about to see. You can watch it on the news, see it in pictures or hear it on the radio and you'll still be shocked to see it in person.
On April 30, 2008, I began my flights to Richards Bay in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. Upon arriving at the airport, another girl and I were picked up by Senzo, our driver, and he drove us to our living quarters at Opi Rotse house in St. Lucia.
The house is rented by African Impact and contains two floors and a separate cottage. African Impact is a non-governmental organization that operates in seven African nations through conservation, community and medical projects. They are an affiliate of African Encounter and the Happy Africa Foundation. The house we're staying in is gated and four workers (a cook, two cleaners and a maintenance worker) are employed by African Impact. During the days, I work at Senzangathemba where our goal is to create a safe environment for children under 6 years old to learn English. We teach them the language and try to give them basic knowledge to prepare for school, as well as keep them off the streets.
South Africa
South Africa
Photo by Alanna Wallace
I was not prepared for what I would see during my time in KwaZulu-Natal; HIV/AIDS is rampant, and poverty is definitely a problem. Seeing the health care system and its struggle has been an eye-opener and a clear catalyst for the spread of HIV/AIDS.
I can’t quite pinpoint when my fascination with the African continent began. In grade school, when we were asked to study a country, I always picked nations like Ethiopia or Mali, while others studied France or Spain. I asked my family to sponsor an African girl at the age of 9. I used to love to gaze longingly at all the places I could travel on my mom’s old globe (Zaire and U.S.S.R included), imagining what every different colored country really looked like.
It was only applicable that I chose a degree like political science for my undergraduate degree in university. For a credit, I decided to complete time abroad in a volunteer setting. It had always been a dream of mine to work with children abroad and begin studying human development at a grassroots level. That’s how I ended up in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
African Orphan
Alanna Wallace (left) volunteered to work with orphans in South Africa.
File Photo by Alanna Wallace

Going Inside South Africa

The Zulu people are afraid of the hospital (which only has eight doctors and can only treat about 60 people per day). About 80 per cent of the population is infected with HIV, so each child at the orphanage and every adult we meet has to be assumed to be HIV-positive.
People think of South Africa as the crown jewel of Africa, and I think it's definitely misrepresented globally as such. This province, in particular, is generally extremely poor, with high TB and HIV co-infection rates, as well as extreme poverty and crime.
St. Lucia, where we stay, is extremely racist. It was the last town to give up apartheid rule, and that dark history is still evident today. One worker I spoke with says he is never comfortable here. I have also seen extreme forms of racism and prejudice. This is something that shocked me as I always had a different impression from the media I've consumed. I found it surprising that a nation that has been popularized by its drive to be equal can also seem as though apartheid rule has never ended. The women we farm with still find it difficult to bring themselves to tell white people how to farm properly, as well as provide instructions, for example. I was prepared for poverty, HIV-positive children, and third-world living but not for the racism and prejudice that occurs around me every day.
Venturing into Khula every morning on an open truck, along with a half dozen other volunteers each morning, is an experience in itself. Women cut reeds along the sides of the estuary, men sell craftwork at the sides of the road, trying to whistle down passing cars, hundreds of children walk to school. In South Africa, the government puts schools a maximum of 50 kilometers apart, believing it to be reasonable for an individual to walk 25 km to classes. We pick up Sandile, the son of our cook, every morning from his uncle who lost his right arm to a snake bite. An avid drinker, sometimes Catreena doesn’t trust him with Sandile, and the 5-year-old misses crèche.
African Orphan
A volunteer named Josh plays with a young orphan named Anele.
Photo by Alanna Wallace
Senzangethemba Day Care Centre was started by Pastor Zulu four years ago. It's a free crèche, the teachers’ work is voluntary, and African Impact is heavily involved.
The crèche project is run out of St. Lucia, and volunteers participate by creating lesson plans, helping teach and providing supplies and support. The morning is started with circle time, where songs are sung in English and Zulu. "Hokey Pokey", "Melody," and a song about pushing an old car with no wheels in Zulu are regulars, along with the alphabet and counting to 10.
The children are 5 at most, and separated into three age groups. There is also a teacher who tends to the babies. Lessons are conducted during the morning and in between a serving of breakfast and lunch – meals most of the children would probably not see if they did not attend. The kids are served mais meal, a dish that would no doubt be considered revolting to any child in North America. The kids here, however, lick their plates and fight over extras in the event more than was needed was accidentally made.
Don’t start getting any grandiose ideas about how well the centre works, either. There are still improvements to be made:
African Orphan
A young orphan girl stares curiously into the camera.
Photo by Alanna Wallace
The church in which the babies sleep is useless when it rains, as water runs down the roof between rotten wood and rusted tin. There aren't enough teachers and many are not nearly qualified, but they work hard and keep in mind the children’s best interests; they research what the other crèches are teaching and we all attempt to devise a lesson plan that’s on-par with the other children in Khula.
The children sit on plastic chairs underneath trees against which whiteboards are propped. There are no class lists, only name tags that are handed out at the beginning of lessons. Children drift in an out of class at times, but most are eager to learn -- something perhaps not common among every North American five-year-old.
A bag of toys is brought out at break time and the kids play soccer, jump rope or play tag. Two balls printed with a map of the world on them are blown-up for extra excitement. Sometimes the children ask me to name the countries; I always point out their own country and mine, but I’m not sure they get it. Sometimes the girls and I do gymnastics, sometimes a baby is crying and I will soothe it. Other times I dress cuts, sores or worms that the kids have, trying to comfort them in my limited vocabulary of conversational Zulu. The daycare only runs in the morning, and the kids make their way home by themselves, sometimes the oldest carrying the youngest.
African Orphan
Alanna Wallace (left) volunteered to work with orphans in South Africa.
Photo by Alanna Wallace
Afternoon activities are conducted in the village of Khula, and are geared toward supporting the community. Ongoing projects include the refurbishing of a Nazareth church that one of our workers and some of the children attend. When the restoration is complete, the congregation will no longer have to worship outside; instead they will have a renewed church.
We garden for Mama Florence, who operates the local AMREF clinic, so that she can donate the vegetables we grow to sick patients.

The HIV and AIDS Epidemic

An HIV support group is conducted on Tuesdays at Senzangethemba, where men and women who have been affected by HIV can learn new skills, receive food and clothing parcels as well as meet other individuals in a similar situation. Recently, we’ve taught them how to bead so they can sell their products in a St. Lucia store. This group also participates in our farming project, where African Impact has bought a plot of land that the women cultivate for their own use, be it to sell or eat vegetables they grow. We are also currently building a new site for the daycare, and we work on erecting this building each day along with contracted workers.
Finally, we conduct an HIV education course for volunteer students who wish to educate themselves about the virus. Here, all kinds of questions must be expected, and never cease to amaze: “Do white people get HIV?” a stout woman in her thirties asks. Here, in South Africa’s eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, HIV/AIDS is believed to be a virus contracted through toilet seats and keyboards; some think it's a virus only overweight individuals can acquire, and some believe white people are immune.
The HIV/AIDS crisis has left 5.5 million South Africans with the virus; that’s 12 per cent of the population, according to UNAIDS. Over 1,000 people are infected every day here, and more than 1,000 people die every day of HIV/AIDS-related causes. The epidemic has left approximately 1.2 million orphans in South Africa alone. These figures are why I decided to travel to KwaZulu-Natal, to work with African Impact.
Wild Dogs
A pack of wild dogs run through the dirt streets in a small town in South Africa.
Photo by Alanna Wallace
HIV/AIDS education is conducted in a wooden lean-to that used to be a church, on the grounds of the daycare centre. Talk of stigma and discrimination are commonplace. One woman admits that if she went home and told her boyfriend she was HIV-positive he would “run as far away as he could.” Most are afraid to protect themselves, afraid to seek help and afraid of what people will think of them if they admit they have the disease.
However, one man I met, affectionately referred to as Rasta, started an HIV support group in Khula and he now volunteers on African Impact projects. He agrees that fear is at the root of many of the problems caused by the HIV epidemic, and he says they exacerbate the problem. He said simply, “I am not afraid.”
Rasta may have been HIV-positive for the past 10 years, but he also remains positive about living with HIV. It is this positive mentality and coping with the epidemic that African Impact works toward establishing through their projects. Being positive and proactive in dealing with the HIV/AIDS problem is a perspective I hope others will also adopt.
Stay tuned for more reports from inside South Africa. I have very limited access to the Internet here, so I'll do my best to respond to questions. Thanks for your interest and feedback.
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