Looking after AIDS orphans in Namibia

As WFP's James. T. Morris, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa visits Namibia, spokesperson Richard Lee talks to people on the front line of the crisis.
Windhoek, 18 June 2004 - Waiting for the children to arrive for their mid-morning meal, Bridgete Sikute leafs through the recently updated list of orphans.

It is a depressing task.

"Officially, there are around 180 orphans in our community," says Bridgete. "But I think the number is higher than that. Certainly, it is increasing every day."

Along with 12 other volunteers, Bridgete helps to run the Orphan Care Centre in Mafuta - a rural community at the eastern end of the Namibia's Caprivi Strip.


Bridgete knows that they cannot tackle the root causes of the crisis in the region - extreme poverty, recurrent drought and floods, and the escalating HIV/AIDS epidemic, which has already infected an almost inconceivable 43 percent of Caprivi's adult population.

But they can at least provide care, support and, crucially, food for the orphans in their community.

"At home, these children have nothing to eat. That is why we decided to start this centre," says Bridgete. "In previous years, orphans stayed in the bush rather than go to school because they were hungry. At least, some of them now go to school."

Established with financial assistance from the Namibian government and UNICEF, the centre currently provides a morning meal to around 100 orphans every day - thanks to donations from a few local businesses.

But it is not enough - particularly after the latest devastating drought to hit the area.


"This is a very bad year. So many children need our help but we can only feed around half our orphans at the moment," adds Bridgete, slowly shaking her head.

But additional aid will soon arrive in the area - due to a joint emergency relief operation launched by the Namibian government, UNICEF and WFP to assist communities battling with the combination of drought, poverty and HIV/AIDS.

Many of the orphans and vulnerable children in Mafuta have already been registered under the programme and will soon start receiving WFP food aid.

"This food will be very helpful," says Bridgete. "We will be able to reach many more children. Hopefully, we will be able to reach them all."


Suddenly Bridgete glances out through the open door - attracted by the excited chatter of young children heading towards the centre from the nearby government school.

Putting the orphan list away, Bridget adds, "For many of these children, this is the only meal they will eat today. With WFP food aid, we might have enough to give them all at least two meals per day."

Outside the first hungry children are already squeezing into a packed but orderly queue.

"Perhaps, we will finally be able to start a kindergarten as well," wonders Bridgete. "We've been wanting to run one to care for orphans up to the age of five but we've never had enough food. Well, not until now."


The WFP Country Office in Namibia was closed in 1996 when the agency handed over it remaining school feeding and food-for-work programmes to the government. Since then, the Namibian authorities have usually been able to provide enough aid to communities in need of emergency relief.

However, the scale of the current crisis in northern Namibia forced the government to request international assistance.

In March, WFP and UNICEF launched emergency appeals to provide food and non-food assistance for six months to more than 600,000 orphans, vulnerable children and women in Namibia.

With its limited resources, the Namibian government plans to give food assistance to some 530,000 people, while WFP will provide 8,000 MT of food aid to an additional 111,000 rural children and their families in the six worst affected northern districts.


UNICEF will help the Ministry of Health and Social Services to provide non-food aid to around 500,000 people - supplying insecticide treated bed nets to prevent malaria, expanding immunisation campaigns and undertaking Vitamin A distribution.

"This joint UN appeal will complement the government's efforts to cope with the drought and ensure that besides food, the health and nutritional needs of the most vulnerable are met," said Mike Sackett, WFP's Regional Director for Southern Africa.

WFP requires US$5.2 million to fund its emergency operation in Namibia until September, when it is hoped that the crisis will have eased and the government will once again be able to help those still requiring relief assistance.


Along with drought, the current food crisis has been exacerbated by severe poverty (50% living below poverty line), high unemployment (officially 30%) and the worsening HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Over the past decade, HIV/AIDS has spread across Namibia with extraordinary speed, soaring from just a four percent adult prevalence rate in 1992 to its current level of 22 percent - the seventh highest rate in the world.

Latest estimates indicate that at least 120,000 children have already been orphaned as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.


Seconds after classes finish for the day, 11-year-old Linda Torosi is already hurrying through the main gates and heading for home.

It's not that she hates school. It's just that it's time for lunch - and for her only meal of the day.

"My father tries to support us but he does not have a job and there is never enough money for food," says Linda. "So I only eat lunch and my three elder brothers and sisters only eat supper."

Times have been hard ever since Linda's mother died three years ago. The recent drought in northern Namibia has simply exacerbated the situation.

"All we eat is maize and sometimes green leaves called Mutete," she adds, looking around at the streams of children flowing home. "It would be good to have more food but then there would be no money for school fees."

Many of the most vulnerable families in Namibia cannot afford to meet the costs of sending their children to class - 300 Namibian dollars (around US$45) for school fees per term as well as extra money for pencils, books and uniforms. But Linda's father is adamant - his family must make sacrifices so that Linda can continue her schooling.

Linda and her family live in Sauyemwa - a struggling, under-developed community on the outskirts of Rundu, the capital of Namibia's northern Kavango province.

Beset by high levels of poverty and unemployment, Sauyemwa - like many parts of northern Namibia - has been battered by drought for the past few years. In the six worst affected regions, tens of thousands of families are now in need of food aid.

As well as around 110,000 orphans and vulnerable children - like Linda.


There are dozens of orphans in Sauyemwa alone. The combined primary and secondary school keeps a list of children who have lost one or both parents. The list is already five pages long. And additional pages will soon be needed - primarily because of the devastating impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Over the past decade, Namibia's adult prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS has soared from just four percent to 22 percent - the seventh highest in the world. And in communities along the main trucking route through northern Namibia - such as Sauyemwa - the rate can approach, and sometimes even exceed, 40 percent.

But aid is on the way for those in need in these communities - thanks to an emergency relief operation involving the Namibian government, UNICEF and WFP.

Like thousands of other orphans and vulnerable children, Linda has already been registered under the programme and will soon be receiving food aid from WFP.


"When we get the food, we'll be able to eat twice or three times a day," says Linda, breaking into a dazzling smile at the thought. "I lost my mother in 2001. I am very happy to hear that other people are now coming to help us."

And with that she's off - to have her lunchtime meal and tell her father the good news.

Sitting on a concrete step in the shade of an acacia tree, Vilho Seima waits for the school bell to signal the end of the mid-morning break. An orphan, Vilho and her brother live with their grandfather in Sauyemwa.

There are another two hours to go before classes end for the day. A long time for any 13-year-old - let alone one who has not eaten anything all day.

And won't eat again until supper.

"We don't have much food to eat at home so we only eat in the evening," says Vilho quietly. "We have maize porridge - sometimes with some sauce, sometimes without."

"When the food arrives, we will be able to eat normally," says Vilho, her eyes suddenly bright with hope.

And then the bell rings. Rising, she dusts off her uniform and turns to go.

"I am so hungry now that I cannot concentrate properly in class," she adds. "It will be better when we have more food."

U.N. Special Envoy

WFP's Executive Director James T. Morris is to visit Namibia on June 20, the last leg of his tour of Southern Africa as the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa.

The aim of the UN mission headed by Morris is to assess the 'triple threat' of food insecurity, weakened capacity for governance and AIDS in the region.

Morris also visited Malawi, Mozambique and Swaziland. It is his fourth visit to the region since becoming Special Envoy in July 2002, four months after joining WFP as Executive Director.

Mission members include representatives from FAO, OCHA, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA, WFP, WHO.

For more information on this story, please contact:

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Julia Stewart
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