Dear Collegues, I have thought of writing on my experiences as a head of a household to Kindly comment assist me make the piece better. your questions, objections, suggestions, additions are welcome
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 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 anchor would be my second choice”. 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 nor 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 who 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 of his 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 who was only 10 was upon me since our nanny was extremely devastated by the demise. 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. 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 could not find a help.
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. Between the period 1990-2000, majority of orphaned-headed households due to HIV/Aids in Kenya were being overseen by children between the age of 14-17. Just the same age that I was when I first took over the family and became the head of my three sibblings. May be, I should somehow count myself lucky since the situation has deteriorated over last decade with children as young as seven or eight having to be breadwinners and caregivers to their siblings.
Uneven distribution of labour
In terms of gender distribution, more orphaned girls than boys have become heads of household. This bias follows the traditional female responsibilities inscribed by Kenya’s patriarchal society that delegates to women and girls the role of home making, bread winning, child raising and care giving. Therefore it definitely follows that upon the death of parents and caregivers, regardless of whether the cause of death is HIV/AIDS or other terminal diseases, girls take control of common house chores to offer survival and wellbeing to their siblings. Of course any task, role or responsibility meant for an adult but given to a minor is overwhelming and there is no exception for AIDS orphans heading households.
Physical Abuse and Insults
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 settled us in Webuye, a town in western Kenya where we later were attending school. In this town 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 the 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 were just but a tip of forthcoming 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 extensive 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 my other brother who was my immediate follower homeless because we refused to be separated.
In Kenya, majority of living relatives who adopt orphans have meagre income. This condition influences the separation of siblings amongst extended family members. In my case, for instance, after my step brother’s disappearance to the street and my sister’s move, the other brother and I had to be moved to the village to stay with grandmother. I defiantly refused to move to the village and opted to stay with relations and friends, moving from one home to another month by month. This disrupted the flow of my education though I was able to attend school, my mind was never present.
Probably, one may ask how I managed to economically be sustained in these harsh conditions. I wish I could share circumstances and situations but for the sake of keeping my wounded heart and spirit from bleeding again from the remembrance of a painful past, I would rather let bygones to be bygones. My youth days were sustained by grace.
Survival of the fittest
In the absence of parents and preferably a mother, children become vulnerable to various risks. Most HIV/AIDS affected families are economically distressed by the need for medication and nutrition of the infected relatives. This affects family incomes and economic stability as the main income earners of the family become fatally ill or die. Consequently, orphaned girls are forced to drop out of school to fend for their families. The Centre for Study of Adolescents, a non governmental organization in Kenya that works on reproductive health , gender and social policy for teenagers, estimates that at least over 13 000 girls drop out of school in Kenya each year. Reasons for this high dropout rate range from teenage pregnancy to the need to be caregivers to orphaned households. Girls are forced into child labour mainly working as domestic helps, as casual farm labourers and in worst cases even forced into prostitution and other sexual relationships. In the course, of their pursuit for a livelihood many orphaned girls are subjected to rape and attempted rape. Only the fittest, can survive the realities of living without parents.
Inheritance and Property Ownership
Women in Kenya have no right to ownership of property such as land, cattle, houses and others. This is the reason why my sister and I, though the eldest in the family 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 which is 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 for themselves, from household goods, to land and houses,cars and cash.
Upon the death of parents, many orphaned children are displaced from property, homes and land that was earlier possessed by their parents. In Kenya, children’s rights are linked to those of the mother and since 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, many relatives start developing interest on property and goods they can grab whilst ill parents are alive. Afterall, the sentence of HIV/AIDS is pretty well known to be death. Girls are especially denied the right to inherit because it is assumed that they shall marry elsewhere and transfer inherited property to other clans.
So, from being children raised by one family that was admired in the neighbourhood, we were reduced to homeless paupers. Rage and animosity over everyone consumed mty heart as I tried to fight fear and stigma. Everyday, I asked my self “why me?” as I could only hope that someday this cup of suffering would be lifted. But for those many orphans who have no means of survival and turn to petty thieving survival sex, those who are bitter with society for being inhuman towards them and cannot find room to forgive, who is to blame?
Today, as I share my story, I share 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 crises and human rights crises in history. AIDS orphans who suffer under a wide range of atrocious violations of their rights, yet day by day, the world has for the most part, continued to stand by, watching in silence.
Why should we pay for the sins we did not commit? For how long must we suffer before HIV/AIDS is put to death? These questions must not go unanswered.
It has been more than two decades since the first HIV/AIDS case and death was ever reported in Kenya. Yet the saying still goes ‘all are not infected but affected’. But, I must add thereby that girls orphaned due to HIV/AIDS suffer the most. This is because, I have seen it, experienced it from the tender age of 14 and still continue to live with the pain as I serve to improve the livelihood of girls in rural Kenya. I believe the millions of children orphaned by the pandemic, neglected and abused by society are being ushered into a generation of a people filled with bitterness and we must put a stop to HIV/AIDS. Justice is our heritage, love is our right.
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, these are not enough. 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. HIV/AIDS has messed our lives leaving us with scars that we will live with forever. It is time now for governments, organisations, men and women of goodwill to cut the tap toot of misery and devastation the pandemic causes on individuals, families and communities at large. 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.