Independent Appeal: Teenager's survival guide to living with Aids

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Yemurai's mother and father died from Aids, she and her two younger brothers went to live with their grandparents. Three years on, her grandmother is showing the symptoms of Aids, contracted through cross-infection when caring for her dying daughter.

Yemurai's grandfather is old and deaf. He still works in the fields but is too weak to produce much. So Yemurai and her brothers to do most of the farm work. At 14, Yemurai has become head of the household.

She tends the crops, looks after her grandparents' small herd of livestock, feeds the family, supervises the work of her brothers and nurses her grandmother. She has no time to go to school, and in any case, she says: "We couldn't afford the school fees for either me or my little brothers."

She has no other relatives she knows of. She had 10 aunts and uncles. All but one are dead, part of the missing generation cut down as the Aids pandemic swept through their native Zimbabwe like a scythe through hay.

Today, one in five of the country's adults is living with HIV. Another person is infected every three minutes or so. Last year alone, 180,000 people in Zimbabwe died from Aids. Average life expectancy in Zimbabwe is just 34 for women and 37 for men, the lowest in the world. Of the country's 1.8 million orphans, 1.4 million have lost their parents to Aids, which can now be held in abeyance with modern antiretroviral medicines for those who can afford them.

So Yemurai is writing down, in a book, tips on how to survive. That may sound a pathetic strategy in the face of the devastation wreaked in her life. But it is giving hope to a new generation.

Knowing her grandparents won't be around for much longer, Yemurai is asking them for advice, everything she can release from their calcifying memories about the family of which she will soon become, at 14, the chief elder.

Some of what she has written are practical hints. "Remember to make sure the farm is well tended," she reads. "Remember to see that the goats have clean water. Remember to be careful when treating grandmother's wounds, but remember that it's safe to wash grandmother's hair."

There are also explanatory notes about important family documents, land ownership certificates and wills, all of which may be vital to enable the sibling to fight off land claims from distant relatives who try to take the land after the last grandparent dies.

The memory book is part of a programme of assistance across Zimbabwe by Save the Children, one of the three charities being supported by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal. It provides help, counselling and respite days where children can meet others in similar situations to share experiences and play sports or music together. "I really look forward to Thursdays, which is when we meet," Yemurai says.

The system also has important psychological benefits. It used to be difficult to get family members to talk about their illness. The memory books have made discussion easier, with children writing questions, or adults setting out statements, to open new topics. The books allow children to voice their worries and fears, and give dying parents the chance to offer comfort to their children.

In times of trial and isolation, the books also help children to build a sense of who they are and where they come from. They can be used to set down family trees and history. They can record family traditions or memories of the likes and dislikes of dead parents, and their hopes for their children's future.

But they are also having an important social impact. Encouraging families to talk about Aids has opened up discussion in the wider community, about how it is spread and what can be done to control it.

Education of HIV/Aids awareness is particularly important for girls such as Yemurai. The HIV prevalence is five times higher in women under 20 than it is in men of the same age. Girls exchanging sex for favours are among the most high-risk groups.

To build the self-esteem of girls, Save the Children has introduced "hero books". Children are encouraged to write about a hero figure in their life. They then write a story with themselves as the central character, setting out a problem and showing how they overcame it and the "tactics and tricks that give me power".

Yemurai is being encouraged to write about her dreams and aspirations, saying how she wants to see herself in 10 years, the time-frame experts suggest it takes preventative interventions to make an impact. She is tasked with uncovering "the hero in me". To the rest of us, she seems to be a hero already.

Comments