Abigail Dlamini has been a mother to more children than she can count. The children are among the youngest, poorest and most vulnerable in Swaziland; without Abigail and a handful of other women, their lives would be very bleak indeed. But if you visit the Valley Charity Neighbourhood Care Point (NCP) in Swaziland’s Ezulwini Valley between 8 a.m. and noon, you would think there could not be a happier and more energetic group of children.
In this pretty rural setting, amid a collection of small, gaily painted buildings, children between the ages of three and eight years congregate for the first half of the day to learn, play games, sing, tell stories and eat two hot, nutritious meals, prepared and served by the caregivers. These children have lost one or both parents to HIV, and have the fewest chances of a stable life. They are the tragic, living legacy of the country’s AIDS epidemic.
Abigail, 64, is a co-founder and the chief care-giver at the Valley Charity NCP, which opened in 2000. “It started with soup,” she says with a smile. Her daughter, Nonhlanha, had a small shop nearby and noticed that the number of children coming to beg for food was growing. “She asked me if I would prepare soup for them,” said Abigail. “She had seen some women in her church making food for the children there.” Mother and daughter lobbied community members for money or supplies and soon the first building of the centre was open for business.
Today, there are some 1,550 NCPs dotted across the country. An estimated 66,000 children flock to these centres; without them, guardians already stretched thin would struggle to meet the needs of these boys and girls -- a granny who had to take on the sons and daughters of her dying children, an older sister leaving school to care for her young siblings, or family members who were given a few more mouths to feed. Instead, here in Valley Charity, they are with friends, learning to count, read the alphabet, and communicate their feelings to their care-givers. They get their most substantial meals in the centre – a bowl of corn-soya porridge in the morning and a plate of maize meal with beans before they leave. The World Food Programme provides the porridge, beans, maize and vegetable oil, all fortified with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, thanks to the financial support of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Caregivers across the country are unanimous on one point: the children really need this food. At the Valley Charity Neighbourhood Care Point, volunteers from the Swaziland Homeopathic Project say that that the most common ailments they see among the children are skin conditions like ringworm and boils (due to poor hygiene) and stomach pains that come when they finally get to eat a proper meal. “Hunger is what causes the stomach pain,” explained Amina Mohamed. “When I asked one little girl what she had eaten for supper the night before, she said, ‘Salt solution.’ That was all she had to eat after she left this place yesterday.”
Since the NCPs first sprang up across the country more than 10 years ago, partly as a grassroots response to the AIDS epidemic, they slowly evolved with assistance from parties outside the community as well. The Ministry of Tikhundla (Regional) Administration and Development provided training for the care-givers two or three times a year. The Global Fund, Swaziland’s biggest bilateral donor, contributed the money for the children’s food in 2013 and the World Food Programme paid for the monthly food rations for the care-givers, given as incentive and acknowledgement of the important role they play. Other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have small projects in the NCPs because the needs are so numerous and widespread.
There is no telling what would have happened to Owethu Magagula and his mother Zanele without Valley Charity. In 2009, Zanele’s husband died. His family ordered her and Owethu out of the house; overnight, Zanele was homeless and penniless. Abigail took pity on her, and mother and son moved into the small, one-room blockhouse built through Abigail’s local fund-raising, the first of the three buildings that today comprise the Care Point. Four years on, Zanele and Owethu are still there, with Zanele serving as one of the eight voluntary care-givers. Every night, she prays that intruders will not break into the building, which is far from the residential neighbourhoods of the surrounding Lobamba community. By day, she sometimes dreams of operating her own daycare centre so she can use the skills she has learned and still be around children, whom she loves. Owethu, the boy raised by a community of women, is registered to begin primary school in 2014 and his mother’s hopes for him are growing. “I want my son to be educated, to finish university and become a lawyer,” Zanele says. “He will represent children with backgrounds like his own, like the children he grew up with.”
Abigail is less optimistic about the future. As the co-founder of one of the oldest NCPs in the country, she is only too aware of the fragility of the resources fuelling it. “I worry about the children. I cry for them. Who will look after this thing? Will it close down or what? I don’t know what will happen. Before it used to be easy, I had money to buy soap, but now things are so tough.”
Gerald Vambire, a volunteer teacher at the centre, says Swaziland’s NCPs fulfil a crucial function that often gets overlooked: “The NCP is an environment for getting the help these kids can’t get in their household. The kids learn how to fit into society, to be responsible, to respect other kids, to respect their elders. There is someone here who can teach them the difference between right and wrong, good and bad.”
This story originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Skyways Magazine.