Parents in bitterly impoverished Mozambique are dying and leaving thousands of children behind, but help is arriving in this proud African nation, writes Mark Angeles
Children of Mozambique are the innocent victims of Aids
One of the first things visitors notice upon arriving in Tres de Fevereiro in Mozambique are the throngs of children - and the conspicuous absence of men.
The children, virtually all of them barefoot, wave enthusiastically at passing vehicles, eagerly pose for pictures and sell souvenirs and cashews to tourists, many of whom are on their way to the pristine beaches of Gaza province on the cerulean Indian Ocean.
What's largely missing are adult men, for reasons both practical and horrific.
With an economy in tatters and the average annual salary of approximately Dh1,100, many able-bodied men in this south-western province leave their small villages to find employment in neighbouring South Africa, a few hour's drive west.
Most of the men work in the comparatively well-paying gold, diamond and platinum mines in Rustenburg and Carletonville in the western portion of South Africa.
Many become infected with HIV through their association with prostitutes and girlfriends during their long absences from home. When they return to Tres de Fevereiro and other villages in Gaza province, they infect their unsuspecting wives.
While the percentage of adults living with HIV/Aids in Mozambique is at 11.5 per cent, according to the latest World Health Organization statistics (high even for sub-Saharan Africa), the incidence of the disease in Gaza province is well over twice that - 25.1 per cent. The global percentage for those living with HIV/Aids is 0.8 per cent.
Despite public awareness efforts, the use of condoms is not widespread. With television and internet service rare, female subservience persistent and illiteracy widespread, educating people in this province and beyond about HIV/Aids is a challenge. But there are also massive cultural hurdles that must be overcome. The use of prophylactics is widely considered less than manly, for instance, and possessing condoms is considered a tacit admission of infidelity, further hampering the likelihood of usage.
A 2010 survey by the Southern Africa Migration Programme and the International Organisation for Migration showed that women find it very difficult to persuade their partners to use condoms.
"What is most striking is that 53 per cent did not use condoms because their partners objected to their use," the author of the report wrote. "In other words, while rural partners in mine-sending areas protect themselves through limiting the number of sexual partners, this does not render them invulnerable to infection because condom use is so low. This increased vulnerability is rooted in gender relations of inequality with partners who reject condom use while simultaneously engaging in high-risk sexual behaviour themselves at the mines."
The health crisis in this country is further complicated by Mozambique's conservative cultural traditions, which are difficult for some to understand.
"You can talk to your daughter about the birds and the bees and contraception and birth control," Joyce Mbele, a logistics and communications coordinator for Habitat for Humanity Mozambique, said to an American visitor. "But in our culture it is frowned upon."
The appalling result is that approximately one in four of the 1.3 million people in Gaza province is HIV positive, one of the highest percentages in the world. Because men don't know or are reluctant to reveal their HIV status and often don't seek treatment until the disease is in its advanced stages, what's left of the population are a few men and lots of children, mothers and grandmothers. According to the most recent data from the United Nations, there were approximately 670,000 orphans in Mozambique, mostly caused by their parents' deaths from Aids.
Lurdes Chauke, 34, is typical of the surviving population in Gaza province. She became infected with the virus that causes Aids several years ago by her second husband, who had returned for an annual visit from his job at a mine in South Africa, another unfortunate world leader in HIV/Aids prevalence at 17.8 per cent.
She receives retroviral drugs from the government free of charge and says her disease is under control and her children Aids-free. Her husband died last year, but because of the arcane laws in Mozambique, his brother, not his wife, inherited his home. Chauke was evicted, forcing the young mother and her four children, ranging in age from four months to 14, to move into a hut made of reeds and sticks.
Because she is HIV-positive and because both of her husbands died, many in this highly superstitious community believe Chauke is possessed by evil spirits. This has made it difficult for her to find a husband, the only way that a woman with few skills can significantly improve her standard of living. When she can, Chauke works at tilling soil in the fields four hours a day for the equivalent of about Dh4.
Her family took her in temporarily, but refused to let her stay permanently.
"My family was kind to assist me, but still they would not allow me to stay with them since they believe I have a curse that can contaminate them and they may end up dying, too," Chauke said through a translator.
But Chauke's luck has recently changed for the better.
Because of her dire circumstances and willingness to work, she was selected to receive a new home in Tres de Fevereiro built by Global Village/Habitat for Humanity, the well-known NGO based in Americus, Georgia. The organisation specialises in constructing homes for the needy, but upon discovering how HIV and Aids were adversely affecting children in southern Mozambique, decided in 2004 to concentrate exclusively on the country's growing population of orphans, vulnerable children and their caretakers.
One Canadian and 15 Americans [including the author of this report] travelled to Mozambique last month to build two Habitat for Humanity houses. The second home was built for Adelina Billa, a grandmother in her early 70s who is raising the three children of her daughter, who she says abandoned them to work in Maputo, Mozambique's capital.
Help for Mozambique has also come from the Arabian Gulf region. Later the same month, 16 students and three teachers from the American School in Dubai built additional houses in the province.
Even for the most experienced of volunteers, Gaza province is an eye-opening experience.
"You intellectually understand that there are poor people in the world, but until you see it for yourself up close, you don't realise the impact of it," said Joe D'Amico, 60, of Little Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, a retired antiques dealer who is a veteran of 11 Habitat for Humanity projects.
The poverty is indeed staggering. Except for the main thoroughfare that connects Tres de Fevereiro with Maputo, all the roads in the village are dirt. So are all the floors in the huts that most residents call home. Meals, usually boiled cassava leaves and corn meal crushed by hand using a small log and a wooden bowl, are cooked on open wood fires.
The "sand" added to concrete powder with water to make mortar, known as massa, for laying the blocks for houses is merely dirt dug from the ground on-site, replete with sticks and roots. There is no running water in this village, only wells spaced a few metres apart. Bathrooms are open-pit latrines with a concrete lid over the hole. A meal prepared by Chauke for 16 Habitat for Humanity volunteer builders included two small fishes, an extravagant addition that she could ill afford.
Billa will soon leave her current home, which has a dirt floor and a roof held in place with wire. Habitat will also help her draft a will that ensures the home will be transferred to her grandchildren. Without such a legal document, there's a risk that the children in her care could once again become homeless.
"My husband is gone, but I feel the same kind of happiness now because of your kindness and hard work on this house," Adelina said. "I can die in peace knowing that my grandchildren will live in a beautiful home."
In a way, Billa and Chauke have won the lottery. As the rare recipients of new homes, they will have a chance at breaking the cycle of poverty by being able to give their children and grandchildren a decent place to live so that they can attend school.
"I always prayed and hoped that something good would happen after the bad luck of losing two husbands," Chauke said to the Habitat for Humanity volunteers during a ceremony commemorating the completion of her home. "And then it happened, God sent all of you."
For those who describe the efforts of volunteers as inconsequential, D'Amico said: "You can either throw your hands up in despair over the millions who live in poverty every day, or you can decide to help two women and seven children with a week or two of your time."
Ÿ Habitat for Humanity organises regular trips to Mozambique and other African countries. More information is available online at www.habitat.org/ame