News24, 29 November 2002, 'Extended familiy' in crisis

Uutapi - The extended family in southern Africa is no longer coping, with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents unable to care for all the orphans produced by 15 years of Aids.

Tuyakupi Fillipys is 92 and blind. A great-grandson serves as his guide, holding his hand. Half a dozen other children loiter around the compound in Uutapi village, 850km north of Windhoek, waiting for the eight who are at school to return.

Schooling costs money, even if it is a minimal amount, so many of the 11 million Aids orphans in sub-Saharan Africa have dropped out, and many are exploited.

Fillipys and his 90-year-old wife have become the heads of a 21-member family, taking in the grandchildren after the Aids deaths of three of their children and a son-in-law.

Another daughter is in hospital in Windhoek with an Aids-related disease.

"We only care about the day, without thinking of anything else," Fillipys says.

Beside him, his wife patiently extracts tiny seeds to form the basis for a soup, and two children a bit stronger than the others pound millet.

The rains are late this year in the arid, sandy plains where the Ovambo people live, but when they come - if they come - this household and many others will have difficulty taking advantage of them to plough and to sow.

The children are all of primary school age, and the family's sole income is the monthly $25 pensions for Fillipys and his wife.

Famines part of African life

Their situation is typical of rural families throughout southern Africa, where famine is threatening more than 14 million people.

Famines have been part of African life since time immemorial, but they traditionally kill off the elderly and the very young, leaving the able-bodied to replant next season and procreate again.

Aids, which infects close to 30 million people south of the Sahara desert, has changed all that, killing off the able-bodied and leaving the elderly and children to try to cope with the hard physical labour of farming and walking long distances in search of wild fruits and roots, and water.

In Namibia alone, with a population of just 1.8 million, one in five adults is infected with HIV, the precursor of Aids, and 47 000 children have beecome orphans after the Aids deaths of their parents.

"We have to kill the myth of the capacity of the so-called African extended family," Urban Jonsson, the southern and east Africa director for the UN children's programme Unicef, told an Aids conference in Windhoek this week.

"This family has been over-extended for quite some time now and is no longer the coping mechanism" it once was, he said.

"I am really tired of still hearing some kind of over-romanticisation of African communities. They are not as nice as books describe them. The extended family, now, in many cases has become one of the greatest exploiters of poor children."

But the instinct remains.

"I have no choice," Fillipys says, asked how he feels about taking in so many children.

"They are the children of my children. As long as I live they should be with me."

Relatives not as keen

Unexpressed is the fear of what will happen to the children after the old couple die.

Officials, though, see the patterns changing.

Says Marianne Shalumbu, of the ministry of women's affairs and child welfare: "It is significant now that after death of a family member, people are no longer so eager to take up the child of a relative. They keep quiet, or rather they find an excuse to stay away from the communal meeting following the burial."

And she adds: "When you visit communities, if you know a child is an orphan in a household, you'll find he's the one keeping the cattle, fetching water, wearing the most worn clothes, doing the hardest work ... "

Jonsson warns that "it is dangerous to think of communities as a bunch of kind people helping each other ... there is no such village. Villages are harsh realities, it's exploitation ... it's a tough life."

In Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, he says, research shows the orphans move in with relatives in the towns, but do not got to school, ending up "doing the dishes, cleaning the floor, and so on ... cheap, cheap labour."

Tens of thousands of other orphans, with no place to go, end up as street children, sniffing glue and selling their bodies.

The United Nations predicts that Aids will produce another 12 million orphans in Africa over the next eight years.

The search for solutions to their plight continues, but few answers are appearing. - Sapa-AFP