First AIDS, now cholera: Zimbabwe’s newest orphans

By Columbus Mavhunga, IANS,

Chitungwiza (Zimbabwe) : In Chitungwiza, a sprawling township about 30 km southeast of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, a group of women and girls are lining up with tin cans to fetch water from a shallow well near a river.

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It’s a scene common in southern Africa but rare in urban areas, where piped water is usually available in homes or at a communal tap.

But the taps have been running dry for months now in Zimbabwe, forcing people to scrounge water from unprotected sources like these, by rivulets of raw sewage and festering mounds of uncollected garbage.

It is here that the cholera outbreak that has claimed nearly 600 lives began in August before spreading to nine of the country’s ten provinces.

Although children are particularly vulnerable to cholera, some have lost their parents to the disease yet themselves survived to face an uncertain future.

Among them is 17-year-old Juliet Shayanewako (not her real name). The 19 month-old baby slung across her back with a piece of cloth is not her son, but her younger brother, Raphael.

Juliet was thrust into the role of surrogate parent after losing both her mother and father to cholera in September. The two died within three days of each other.

Balancing the water on her head, Raphael bobbing in time with her gait, Juliet leads the way to her home – a single room in a four-room house.

“Me and my sister (age six) were in the rural areas when they fell sick and died,” says Juliet, gingerly setting down the baby and water. “By the time we returned, they had been buried.”

After the funeral, Juliet’s maternal grandmother looked after the children for about two months before returning to her rural home.

“We now stay alone – the three of us,” Juliet says. “Relatives have been coming with food but they are no longer coming as frequently as before.”

Raphael is receiving assistance from non-governmental organisations in the form of infant milk formula and cereals. “But at one time they ran out because we had also started feeding on them – our maize meal had run out,” she says. “Now, I make sure that we do not take his food.”

No one knows yet how many children have been orphaned by cholera, the latest crisis to hit a once prosperous nation that has been run into the ground by populist policies.

Over half the population of 12 million is in need of food aid, making them weak and vulnerable to disease.

Zimbabwe has the world’s highest rate of orphaned children. Over one million children have lost one or both parents, mostly from HIV/AIDS (16 percent of adults are infected with the virus), or poverty-related diseases.

Nine-year-old Bongani and his six-year-old brother Sibanengi (names changed) from Budiriro township about 30 km west of Chitungwiza lost a parent to each HIV/AIDS and cholera.

Budiriro is one of areas worst affected by the cholera outbreak. The boys’ mother died last Saturday at a nearby clinic set up to specially for cholera victims. Their father died of AIDS last year.

“The good thing is that cholera is likely to be a thing of the past now since the UN, Britain and other big organisations are going to assist,” their uncle says, referring to the unusually frank appeal by Zimbabwe’s government last week for international aid over the outbreak, which it termed an emergency.

But experts point out that, while the call for a help was an important first step, much more needs to be done to prevent cholera deaths shooting up into the thousands.

“There are a lot of things that need to be done before victory (over cholera) is proclaimed. For example, the supply of safe drinking water and proper disposal of garbage and sewage has to improve quickly,” says Marcus Bachmann of Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) medical NGO.

Although some children have outlived their parents, the United Nations children’s agency Unicef says children are the most vulnerable to cholera.

“Children in Zimbabwe are on the brink, and everyone’s focus must now be on their survival,” Unicef acting country representative Roeland Monasch said.