1991 was to be my graduation year from elementary school. My goal was to shine, this time not just as the best student in my class as it had been every other term, I aimed to be the best candidate countrywide. I knew that my mother was a proud parent especially when she would visit my school for the end of term parents’ day. While presenting the best student prizes, the head teacher in my school would announce to all parents that I had been amongst the students with the best grades or that I was the most well behaved girl. In pursuing my education, my career dream was to be a lawyer like my father. “If not, being a television announcer would be my second choice”, so I dreamt. I loved reciting poems and rehearsing my public speaking speeches to my mother and my siblings before every school contests ahead. I was not afraid or ashamed to let people know my thoughts and my opinion over issues.
Suddenly, on May 19th 1991, my dreaming big was overshadowed by a nightmare. My beloved mother, the pillar of our family died. Her cause of death was not explained to me or any of my siblings. What we received was only the solace of mourning relatives, friends and foes that eulogised her as a hardworking, humble and dedicated woman who loved her children. At the time of death, my father was not home as usual. He was with the other woman and her family. My elder sister was in a boarding school several miles away from our home in Nairobi.
It so happened therefore, that the responsibility of consoling my younger brother was upon me since our nanny was extremely devastated by the demise. Edmund was only 10 years old but also very protective of me that he earned the name ‘bodyguard’. I had to recollect myself from the grief and start acting responsibly. My first assignment; trying to locate my father by telephone wherever he may be. My second assignment, gather all of mama’s valuables and keep them safe under lock. Third, stay close to my brother and offer comfort. These were signs of bigger responsibilities that had started defining their boundaries around me.
At 14 years old, HIV/AIDS made me the head of the household. Instead of celebrating my achievement to joining high school, I was the provider and the comforter not knowing where to find the next meal and unable to answer the question- why did mama leave us? When I should have been reflecting on my life goals, I had to wake up in the breaking of dawn, prepare breakfast, if at all it was available, before getting myself and my brother ready for school. “I am his mother now and must watch over him at school, by the roadside when boarding a bus back home, all the time. I must ensure homework is done while I prepare dinner and settle him to bed”. Minute by minute, I reminded myself of my new given roles. Only after taking care of the house and preparing for the next day, can I tackle my own homework. Sleep is reduced to a few hours in the middle of the night as my absent mindedness in school, depression and loneliness grew.
Today, this is the absolute imagery of child-headed households in Sub Saharan Africa. HIV/AIDS has beaten deep with its effects devastating communities and ruthlessly destroying families. In Kenya alone, an estimated 1.7 million children have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS since it was first reported in 1984. The pandemic has caused a total reverse on family roles with a sharp shift of responsibilities from parents to children. Until 2000, majority of orphaned-headed households due to HIV/Aids in Kenya, were being overseen by children between the ages of 14-17. Just the same age that I was when I first took over the family and became the head of my three siblings. May be, I should somehow count myself lucky since the situation has deteriorated over the last decade with children as young as seven or eight having to be breadwinners and caregivers to their siblings.
Physical Abuse and Insults
As much as I had the responsibility to protect the family from disintegrating, my experience was further made unbearable when my father’s condition was developing to full blown AIDS. Since he probably feared rejection or was ashamed of the situation he was in, father kept my sister, brother and I away from Nairobi where he lived. He chose instead to settle us in Webuye, a town in western Kenya where we later were attending school. Here, he owned a house and had settled one of his mistresses hoping probably that she would be a caregiver to his children as he becomes incapacitated.
My father’s other woman seemed to be a lady of good demeanour. But with time, her true character was revealed. I resented her, first because I believed it is women like her who broke mother’s will of being happily married when they indulged in an affair with father with full knowledge that he was a married man with children. I hated her because for many days she made my siblings and I suffer hunger and extreme misery as she enjoyed herself in the company of friends, wining and dining in big hotels in town. The wound she left on my left heel after ruthlessly slamming an iron door behind me and causing a deep cut together with the insults and physical abuse today remain scars of many trials and tribulations experienced under the care of guardians.
One thing is for sure, physical and verbal abuse suffered in the hands of caregivers is one reason why orphaned and other vulnerable children run to the streets. My last born brother, born of another mother, was reunited back to the family a few months before father died in 1994. Because of severe beating that we would undergo for petty issues like forgetting tap water running, he fled away from home to live in the streets where he thought was safer and peaceful than at a relative’s house. My sister chose to co-habit with her partner at an early age hoping to find peace in marriage and there I was left with Edmund with a risk of becoming homeless because there was no place to call our home.
When Children become a Liability
Even with the possibility of being adopted into extended families, the care and support of orphans is a daunting task that many relatives shy away from. It is no secret that the responsibility, poverty, fate, fear and stigma that followed us influenced many caregivers within the wider extended families, both paternal and maternal to view us as a liability. After my step brother’s disappearance to the streets and my sister’s move, Edmund and I had to be moved to the village to stay with grandmother. I defiantly refused to stay in the village because the sudden transition of life in the city to the rural village was not an easy one. I opted to stay with relations and friends, who offered shelter in exchange for baby sitting services. My hope was that they could pay me just enough even to afford my sanitary towels. Moving from one household to another disrupted the flow of my education and though I was able to attend school, my grades begun to drop because I worried a lot about my siblings.
Inheritance and Property Ownership
Kenya is a patriarchal society. From time immemorial, her traditions have destined men to rule and doomed women to servitude. The role of women and girls is inscribed as home making, bread winning, child raising and care giving. In this regard, an uneven distribution of labour within orphaned headed household follows with more girls than boys taking the responsibility of being providers and caregivers.
With such responsibilities bestowed on females heading household, strong families can be nurtured with ease with the availability of family resources. However, women in Kenya have no right to ownership of property such as land, cattle, houses and others. My sister and I were denied the right to inherit my father's property. I remember one evening when we were mercilessly evicted from one of father’s houses located in Nairobi. My paternal uncles claimed they had rightful ownership and we should forget about getting administration to anything left behind by our parents. In their words, “he was your father but he was our brother”, they said as they greedily accumulated all the property for themselves.
Upon the death of a husband or father, many female headed households are displaced from matrimonial and ancestral land. Since children’s rights in Kenya are linked to those of the mother, and because there is no law protecting widows and orphans, many female headed households lose property rights and inheritance to relatives. Like ferocious beasts waiting to grab their prey, relatives start developing interest on property and household goods they can grab when they learn that one is infected with HIV, After all, the sentence of HIV/AIDS is pretty well known to be death. Girls are particularly denied the right to inherit because it is assumed that they shall marry elsewhere and transfer inherited property to other clans.
Survival of the fittest
The need to buy Anti-retroviral to maintain father’s immune system from collapsing so he may live long to see his children marry and get grandchildren, overdrew our family’s savings by and by as his health deteriorated. Consequently, we were unable to afford basic needs and were forced against every possible risk, to seek alternative means of survival. Similarly, as family savings dwindle, many AIDS orphans become doomed to illiteracy for lack of tuition fees. They are also exposed to risky behaviour as they engage in earning income.
The Centre for Study of Adolescents, a Kenyan non governmental organization that works on reproductive health, gender and social policy for teenagers, estimates that at least over 13 000 girls drop out of school each year. A reason for this high dropout rate is attributed to teenage pregnancy. Many orphaned girls engage in unprotected sex in exchange for food, clothing and shelter. Others are forced into child labour mainly working as domestic helps, as casual farm labourers and in worst cases even forced into prostitution and early marriages. The pursuits for a livelihood for majority of orphaned girls become fateful as they are subjected to rape and attempted rape. The whole situation creates a vicious cycle that further perpetuates the spread of HIV/AIDS.
How did I survive the atrocities of HIV/AIDS? I will candidly admit that for every breaking of a new day, my whole being would freeze in absolute fear and burn in fiery rage over every abuse and cruelty of the day and night ahead.
The driving force to my 'parental' roles was Pappa’s last words. Exactly three months before he succumbed to HIV/AIDS and died, he called me by his sickbed and said. “Beautiful”, he always called me beautiful because my first name Lindy means- the beautiful one. “I know I have caused you and the whole family a lot of pain. For these I am very sorry”, he repentantly said as tears rolled down his face and mine too. “You are brave, bright and very beautiful”, he continued while struggling to put on a smile against his writhing pain. Looking directly into my eyes he concluded, “I want you to take good care of your brothers and sister. All shall be well with you”. Then he blessed me with goodwill as I forgave him and promised to fulfil his and mamma’s will.
Against every backdrop of being called beautiful and dreaming of a beautiful future, HIV/AIDS painted me with agony and pain. In my struggle to keep the family together no matter the price, I believed in one core value that mamma taught me. She always said, "beautiful is learning to turn vulnerability into victory". Now I know, that only the fittest, can survive the realities of living without parents.
Our heritage and our right
Today, my story is shared in the plight of millions of African children who have suffered the loss of one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. Children forced to be heads of households, and have become one of the gravest humanitarian and human rights crises in history. AIDS orphans who suffer under a wide range of atrocious violations of their rights as the world continues to stand by and watch in silence.
It has been more than two decades since the first HIV/AIDS case was reported in Kenya. Yet the saying still goes ‘all are not infected but affected’. But, I must add that girls orphaned due to HIV/AIDS suffer the most. I have seen it, experienced it from the tender age of 14 and still continue to face the pain of HIV/AIDS as I serve to improve the livelihood of women and girls in rural Kenya. The heart of the matter is that children orphaned by the pandemic suffer neglect and abuse. These circumstances usher them into an adult life of a people filled with bitterness and vengeance. If care and support for orphans and other vulnerable children will not be improved the consequences of these will be detrimental to society may be worse than HIV/AIDS has been.
It should also be noted that In as much as the international community offers support and aid for HIV/AIDS prevention programs in Kenya and the whole of Sub Saharan Africa, The laws and statutes within the country should ensure that girls get a right to inherit property even as the law protects orphans from loosing property to greedy relatives. The perpetrators of sexual violence and physical abuse should be prosecuted and orphans compensated for damages. In the long term, AIDS orphans need to see no more deaths of the most important people in their lives. Aid and other resources are only a treatment to symptoms. It is time now for governments, organisations, men and women of goodwill to cut the tap root of misery and devastation the pandemic causes on children. Let us find a cure for HIV/AIDS. Let us give children whose parents fall victim to HIV/AIDS, the right to live in dignity.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.Voices of Our Future Assignment: Op-eds