In 1997 a British doctor called Ann Barnard came to Ingwavuma in Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. She planned to work in South Africa and then thought she would go to make a difference in another African country that was “more rural and needy”.
When she arrived in Ingwavuma, she realised she didn’t need to go further. After two years at Mosveld hospital she started charity work on the side and after six years as a doctor, Barnard realised the orphan problem was so enormous she left medicine to start an NGO.
Barnard founded Orphan Care that now employs more than 90 people and has been going for almost ten years.
The NGO helps Gogos (Zulu grannies) apply for grants and even teaches some how to use bank accounts. At first they found people were burying loved ones with ID books and necessary papers which made getting orphan grants close to impossible.
Their awareness campaigns have educated community members about who qualifies for grants and how to apply for grants. They monitor the houses and check that children who are the recipients of foster care or child grant money are getting enough to eat.
Sometimes, says Barnard. “a child headed household is a happier one- the children can just look after themselves”. “It is often better than when an older brother or sister in their twenties gets the grants and may not use it to feed the children.
In some cases the care situation is reversed,” she says. Children look after dying parents or Gogos finding them food, tending to them, cooking and running the household. Barnard says once the caregivers die, the children are more likely to get attention as the community then draws them in. But she says while the parent is dying the children’s needs are ignored.
Barnard did her Masters on “Children of terminally ill parents who care for them”. Her conclusion was that it was better for the children when the parents had died because then they could look after themselves without additional worries.
“Imagine if you knew it was better for your children for you to be dead rather than a burden?” asks Ann’s husband Paul: stunned?
South African Chris Higham, who lived in the community for eight years and worked as a high school teacher says gogos don’t usually have a lot of influence to instruct and control the kids. “It’s not just orphans who are at risk,” says Higham, “it’s vulnerable children whose mothers are away working or neglecting them. There is whole generation of children being raised by their Gogos who don’t have the resources to provide adequate food, love and discipline to hordes of grandchildren.”
Will these hundreds of thousands of children growing up without discipline, structure and nutrition impact society negatively in years to come? I ask Barnard.
Barnard says she sees problems down the line when many of these children have grown up. “We have just dismissed two workers at the Orphan Care: one for fraud and one for alcoholism,” she adds. Both had been teenage boys in child headed households that Orphan Care provided support to. When the kids had grown up, they were employed at the same NGO. One worked there for five years, the other for eight.
Barnard says they were “off the rails”. These were children who experienced a long term intervention and already the results “are not promising” says Barnard.
“The status of children is low in these communities. Babies are even worse,” she adds.
At Christmas time there were two teenage mothers at Mosveld hospital she had heard about from a local doctor. One had left her child with its gogo and the baby became malnourished as the mother hadn’t shown the granny how to make up the formula. The other baby had burns on its hands for being “naughty”, explained the mother of the three month old to a doctor.
Orphan Care works to monitor the care of vulnerable children in Ingwavuma. Barnard says there are 3000 orphans in the areas between Ingwavuma and the Swazi and Mozambican borders and the foreign funded Ngo can’t reach all of them.
“The Department of Social Welfare in the area employs 16 social workers,” says Barnard, “far more than Orphan Care’s three. But the Department does not have vehicles says Barnard so the social workers do not do home visits.
With a growing problem and a lack of adequate government response, the future for hundreds and thousands of vulnerable children and South African society appears dim.