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Orphan-headed households

by Paula Beauchamp (pbeau AT hotmail.com)

Where one would expect only sadness, an inexplicable joy clings to the walls of Teddy Namanda's home. Five children sit on the grass-laid floor of their crumbling mud hut in rural Rakai District, smiling but alone. Little Agnes, 4, is on Teddy's left. Her small hand rests timidly on her sister's upper thigh. Scovia, 9, the shyest of them all, nestles gently against her sister's upper arm, her purple vest a polka dot of tears and holes.

Normally one would fill with delight at such a tableau of maternal warmth and unconditional love. Normally, but not now.
Teddy, you see, is barely 13 years old and two years have passed since AIDS claimed her parents and swallowed her childhood whole. Aged 11 then, her youngest charge, little Agnes, had barely turned two.
"My father died in 1996. My mother followed in 1998," says Teddy in her quiet, mature way.
Originally Burundian refugees, the children were left without relatives once their parents died. Teddy says her responsibilities immediately became clear.
"I quit school to look for food for my brothers and sisters the moment my mother died. Mostly I dug in other people's gardens in exchange for some little food."
Teddy has since learned to weave mats and does odd jobs around the village in return for food. In this way, she keeps her four younger siblings in school.

Their performance, given the circumstances, has been astounding. Richard, the second eldest, placed third last year in his class of 75. His replies, sharp and precise, evidence an intellect as keen as his sister's.
"I am growing in thoughts and planning," says Teddy. Everyone co-operates and that is good. It makes me happy."
James Monge, Manager of World Vision Kyotera, the office that stumbled upon the family six months ago, is impressed. "These children challenge me," he says. "They are such good children, doing so well and yet they have nothing."
Fearing the children's dilapidated home would not survive another wet season, World Vision set about building them a new home.
"I can't believe I'll sleep in a house that doesn't leak," says Teddy. With the house almost complete, the children won't have to wait long.
"A secure home and better bedding will make school easier for them," says Monge. "Now we want to find a way of getting Teddy back to school."

Like the period spent nursing her parents through illness, Teddy bares no resentment towards her siblings in her de facto "motherhood" role.
"It is not their fault," she adds casually.
But Teddy admits to feeling lonely and bored with her siblings and peers away at school. When asked what she most wants, her response is unequivocal. "To go back to school."
For the 56 child-headed households registered with World Vision's Kyotera Division, the greatest challenge is finding a way to make them self-sufficient while keeping the eldest child in school.
"Aids is a nasty disease that causes many social imbalances. It is worst if it takes parents when the children are still young," says Innocent Centurio, a Development Facilitator with World Vision.

In Rakai, where AIDS has gnawed through the extended family's safety net, the phenomenon of child-headed households raises unique and challenging problems.
Orphan families headed by girls tend to work better, but the burdens cast upon them are often more onerous.
"We have to find ways of assisting these children to maximise their time because they each have so many responsibilities and so much to do," says Grace Mayanja, the Manager of World Vision's Kabuto Office where 100 orphan-headed households are registered. Examples include helping the children establish low-maintenance, high-yield projects and providing them with bicycles to cover long distances quickly.
In the meantime, as Teddy smiles askance at her burgeoning new home, her happiness and pride are unmistakable. The smile she wears says,
"Things will be ok." Looking at how Teddy has coped, there is little question that she is right.

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