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JOHANNESBURG, 25 August (PLUSNEWS) - NGOs dealing with children orphaned by HIV/AIDS have tended to concentrate on material support, neglecting their emotional and psychosocial needs.
But a developmental organisation in the southern region of Zimbabwe is filling that gap by using bush camps to teach orphans how to cope with their trauma.
Masiye Camp has been organising bush camps in the Matopos national park, 65km south of Bulawayo, since 1998. Teaching life skills through bush camps is an African tradition that is still alive in some societies, but the practice has been remodelled to address the new stress HIV/AIDS has placed on communities.
The 2004 UNAIDS global report on the epidemic has estimated that there are about 980,000 AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe. But these figures fail to reveal the psychological effect on the young people who have nursed and lost their parents under traumatic circumstances, without receiving any psychological support from their relatives or communities.
In most cases, the fight for survival does not even give these children time to mourn their loss.
"Many children we have worked with show psychosomatic disturbances, depression, very low self-esteem, disturbed social behaviour, hopelessness and low levels of life skills due to parental death," Riego, one of the camp's counsellors, told PlusNews. "This might result in stunted development of emotional intelligence and life skills."
Every school holiday, Masiye offers eight-day camps for 80 children in four categories: under fives, six- to 11-year-olds, 12- to 16-year-olds and children who head households.
The day is filled with outdoor activities and talks on issues affecting children and youth, counsellor-directed education and skills-development. Participants can choose between play activities - including arts and crafts, canoeing and challenge courses - as well as team-building exercises, such as tug-of-war and treasure hunts.
According to the camp organisers, the skills children are taught can be used in their daily lives. Canoeing, for example, is not seen as a recreational sport but an exercise in experiencing limits, dangers, rules and teamwork.
Arts, craft and music courses are aimed at giving children resources to start income-generating projects after they return home. Children who head households are also taught teenage parenting as well as household and business management.
There are 10 youth leaders at the camp, who are trained by psychologists and counsellors. In extreme cases, the youth leaders require the support of a child psychologist, as the children's mental problems can sometimes lead to aggressive behaviour, drug taking, smoking and stealing.
The camp holiday would most likely be the first time someone was available and willing to listen to the children's stories, Riego commented.
"Most of these children suffer tremendous trauma and psychosomatic disturbances due to unresolved emotions. In the camp, they gain trust and learn that they are not alone in their situation," explained a Masiye Camp official who asked not to be named.
Allowing the children to grieve is one of the most important aspects of the camp holiday.
"In their day-to-day lives, these children don't get the opportunity to speak about their problems. Most children do not go through a proper bereavement phase - they don't talk about their loss, and many act as if their parents were still alive," the official noted.
Youth leaders regard it as their biggest achievement when the participants gradually open up and admit to their feelings during the camp.
But when the camp is over, reality sets in again. The lack of community support and their heavy daily responsibilities often leave the children feeling even more depressed.
The lack of follow-up services and continuous support has been a weak point in the Masiye programme, the youth leaders acknowledged.
"The camp must not be a stand-alone programme. We need to link psychosocial support with community care programmes. At the moment, the community doesn't comprehend the need for psychosocial support and children's rights," the official said.
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