The Herald (Harare)

13 December 2012

Zimbabwe: A Day With a Child-Headed Family

IN his book, "The Friendship Book", Francis Gay narrates a story about a man who spent most of his life longing to go to heaven. When he died an angel took him on a kind of conducted tour. He was shown majestic mountains and gushing and rushing streams, noble forests and flowery meadows.

There were children laughing and playing and the sound of music everywhere. One glad and beautiful sight after another was shown to him.

"How wonderful!" he exclaimed. "So this is Heaven!"

"No!" replied the angel! "This is the world in which you lived and never saw!"

That is the kind of life cherished by those children whom we left in custody of other children. Death opens unknown doors!

Aside this anecdote and back home in Chitungwiza, is a paradox of another life story.

Unpleasant smell wafts from a dumpsite in Unit L, where flies somersault from one dirty object to another in effortless aerial search of their survival. Adjacent to the dumpsite is a cemetery. This is yet another scary thing for young children, who have become accustomed to death at a tender age.

Day in, day out, the children see people being buried.

At the dumpsite, adults and children alike, scavenge for food and recycled products such as plastic bags.

In another faculty of life, bricklayers use sewer water to mould bricks. Call it being innovative, given the multifarious array of rivulets of flowing raw sewage.

Without a clue of what is on for supper, Nabanda (15) sits on the collapsing door of a room she confidently calls their home. It is not far away from the dumpsite. She has become used to the smell, the flowing sewer, the scavengers and the life around her!

While some of her age mates are busy with schoolwork, or nagging their parents for new clothes and gadgetry ahead of the festive season, Nabanda has to contend with playing parent to her brothers and a sister.

She does not know her father and, as if that is not enough, her mother who is blind is not in good health. This situation forces her to be responsible, to work for the family.

This kind of life seems normal to Nabanda, who is now taking care of her younger sister Rudo (6) and two other toddlers and their blind mother. Life can be tough!

Their only immediate relatives are uninvited flies and mosquitoes that frequently visit the place, a thing the writer found disturbing.

She wakes up early before others and searches for menial jobs. All she needs is to earn enough to sort out that day's living.

Considering her age and what she is capable of doing one would wonder why some marriages break up as the wife fails to manage the home.

In the long run she is depressed.

"Zvinondiomerawo! Dzimwe nguva ndinopedza hasha dzangu nekuchema (It is really hard for me. At time I ease pressure by crying). We do not have enough blankets and I picked the pots we are using from the dumpsite. We live by the grace of God because we could have died due to typhoid and cholera.

"Sometimes we spend the whole day without anything to eat because the bricks we used to mould here are of low quality so there is no market. Now the rains are coming there is no business and we share the only room we have here and there are no toilets too.

"We just buried my brother recently after he succumbed to diarrhoea and life is really tough," she said failing to hold back her tears.

Her mother, Alice Karima, is dependent on her daughter, given that she is blind.

"My parents come from Malawi and we used to stay and work in the white man's farm until they vacated.

"We then come and stayed at the dumpsite since we had nowhere to go. I think this has become our permanent place.

"I had seven children with my Malawian husband and when he died I was married again to a Zimbabwean man Duncan Karima, and had another seven kids, but one by one they are dying.

"Some got married and they are living at their homes but even if they come I will not recognise them. I cannot see. It makes no sense for them to pay a visit to me considering where I live now.

"Nabanda is the one who carries me in and out of the room and even to the bush to relieve myself.

"I am now left with four kids and Nabanda being the eldest who is taking care of us. As for me I cannot do anything. They do not have birth certificates. The only thing left for us to do is to find what we can eat for that day," she recalls.

She was totally depressed. Emaciated, agitated and sleepless.

Her story makes one appreciate depressed people.

Child-headed families have become a permanent feature in Zimbabwe. In most cases they are a result of the HIV/Aids pandemic.

It has affected all of us - our families, friends, colleagues and neighbours, yet we continue to witness the dark cloud of silence and stigma which has surrounded the epidemic and limits our own ability to respond.

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