AIDS AND THE AFRICAN

AIDS AND THE AFRICAN

 

                 

'If you would have seen me with these

children, you would have thought they were

getting ready to die.'

 

                  By Wil Haygood, Boston Globe Staff, 10/11/99

 

                  Second of four parts

 

                  NEW TAFARA, Zimbabwe - She had to get the babies, her nieces and

                  nephews. They were sleeping in the jungle, and she thought the darkness

                  might get them, if not something worse. Their mothers - her sisters - were

                  dead, or dying. Their fathers had abandoned them. She couldn't sleep. The

                  thought of the babies kept waking her.

 

                  ''They were living like animals,'' says Esther Daiton.

 

                  She didn't have any money. She had a precious TV; she hawked the thing

                  without a second thought. But it wasn't enough. She started begging, got

                  enough cash together, then she hit the road. First by bus, then foot.

 

                  Esther crossed north into Malawi, through Zambia, covering a distance of

                  several hundred miles. On the days she slept outside, her body would

                  crumple beneath trees from exhaustion. Her sleep would be deep. But when

                  awake, she traveled like a woman who didn't need sleep.

 

                  She traveled as fast as her thin legs would take her. And, after two months of

                  searching, picking up clues, using some of the first children she found as her

                  guides to the others, her journey was complete. She had found Tsi Tsi and

                  Paul. She found Fungai. She found Manyara, Elbe, Allan, and John. Seven in

                  all.

 

                  They'd been living as orphans - orphaned to the jungle. Four were her two

                  sisters' kids. One sister had died of AIDS, while the other lay terminally ill

                  with the disease in a hospice. Of the seven children, three she had never laid

                  eyes on.

 

                  Across this drained continent, beset by wars, famine, and misfortune, the

                  AIDS epidemic has left something else in its wake: millions of AIDS orphans.

                  By 2001, according to figures presented last month in Zambia at an

                  international conference on the disease, the number of AIDS orphans in

                  Africa will reach 13 million.

 

                  Zimbabwe has the largest number of AIDS orphans on the continent - an

                  estimated 670,000 - and the number is growing at a rate of 60,000 a year,

                  according to the government-funded National AIDS Coordinating Program.

 

                  ''The social welfare system is not working,'' says Colletta Peta, a social

                  worker who works at an AIDS hospice in Harare.

 

                  Traditionally, extended families here and elsewhere across Africa would be

                  expected to take care of their relatives' homeless children and even some

                  orphans, leaving the social welfare system as a last resort. But deaths from

                  AIDS have severely blunted the effectiveness of the extended family. Now,

                  the orphans seem to be everywhere, and they are at risk. ``It is a tragedy,''

                  Peta adds. ``We really can't protect the orphans.''

 

                  To keep and protect her babies, Esther Daiton sells popcorn on the roads of

                  this village, 10 miles outside Harare. She saves her pennies. ``I pray to

                  God,'' she says.

 

                  There are nine children lying at her feet in her hut here, the seven she

                  retrieved from Malawi, plus her natural-born son and daughter, Peter and

                  Desilyn. Every one of them has lost one - or both - parents to AIDS. The

                  sun is slicing through the cracks of the hut. The children scamper about like

                  pups. They are hungry, but there's not a scrap of food in sight.

 

                  ``This is all so impossible,'' Esther says.

 

                  Esther herself is all bone and skin.

 

                  Esther Daiton was born Nov. 11, 1973, in Masvingo, about 180 miles from

                  Harare. Her mother, Neliya, and father, Malinga, lived and worked on a

                  tobacco plantation. There were six children born to Neliya.

 

                  Esther enjoyed growing up in Zimbabwe. School was fun. In the 9th grade

                  she met Andrew Lyadutu. Actually, he was her teacher. He asked Esther to

                  marry him. She said yes. She was 14 years old. "He lost his job because of

                  the marriage,'' says Esther.

 

                  She was young and immature, she admits, about her first marriage, which

                  ended in divorce. Three years later, still young, she met Thomas Kabalika.

                  He made all kinds of promises. It was the marriage vow of fidelity he

                  couldn't keep. "He was not used to sleeping inside,'' Esther says. "He wanted

                  to sleep outside - with the prostitutes.''

 

                  Esther left him.

 

                  Two marriages down, she still had faith. Love was not a word that frightened

                  Esther Daiton. She met Loton Mafuta. A smooth talker, he was the kind of

                  man who showed Esther his hard-earned money at the end of each pay

                  period.

 

                  On May 11, 1997, Esther married Mafuta. She was 23 years old. Her years

                  had been hard, but Africa was Africa, a place where the clouds were always

                  heavy.

 

                  Mafuta had a good job. He managed a construction site. Esther became a

                  clerk there. She was still living near her home. Her father had become ill.

                  Esther, like her mother, wiped the sweat from his brow, brought his

                  medicines to him.

 

                  "My father used to drink beer at the pubs,'' recalls Esther. "He would collect

                  other women in the pub and go into the bush.''

 

                  Sores broke out all over her father's body; diarrhea weakened him. The old

                  man - who really wasn't old at all, he just looked it - sat in silence.

 

                  "It was a hard time,'' says Esther. Her father had AIDS.

 

                  Not long after his diagnosis, Esther's mother returned to the hospital with

                  him. Then she, too, was diagnosed with the virus. "We were at the hospital

                  and the nurses were doing counseling to my mother,'' says Esther. "My father

                  apologized to her and said, `I am the one who did this to you.'''

 

                  Her mother and father were soon admitted to Bonda Hospital, three miles

                  outside Harare. Esther prepared food for them at home and took it to the

                  hospital. "It was difficult,'' she says. "I talked to God: `Help me.'''

 

                  The hospital sent Esther's father home. They gave him a a discharge card. It

                  was stamped "DH'': Died at Home.

 

                  On April 5, 1997, Esther's father died. That's when the dying began.

 

                  Four months later, on Aug. 11, Esther - who had given birth a year earlier to

                  little Emmaculate and was suddenly worried because Emmaculate was sickly

                  - went to the hospital. Esther had taken an HIV test weeks earlier.

 

                  Her test came back positive.

 

                  "I went to my house with my child,'' she recalls. "I started crying for two

                  hours. I told my sister, Martha, that I went to the doctor and he told me I

                  was HIV-positive. My sister started shouting, and said, `I don't want to talk

                  to someone who is HIV-positive. So leave!' My sister - my blood sister -

                  said to some of my friends, `Esther is already dead.'''

 

                  Esther was alive. But the clouds were rolling in fast.

 

                  Nine months after her father died, Esther's mother breathed her last breath. It

                  was Jan. 4, 1998. Esther pulls a copy of her mother's death certificate from a

                  sack. "Vomiting,'' it says, was the cause of death. In Africa, because of the

                  stigma of the disease, it is rare for a death certificate to list the cause as

                  AIDS.

 

                  Then trouble began brewing in Esther's own marriage. Her husband was

                  vanishing at night. Away on construction jobs, his time was his own. "He

                  would go out in Maputo,'' she says. "He was paid in US money. He started

                  using drugs, drinking.'' Esther discovered that her husband had been sleeping

                  with a friend of hers.

 

                  But then Mafuta grew too weak to vanish into the night. He too broke out in

                  sores. He had chest pains. She wanted to talk about her HIV status; she

                  hoped for some answers. But he didn't want to talk to Esther.

 

                  On May 20, 1998, men started lifting shovels again. This time, the length of

                  the plot was quite short: The hole was for Emmaculate, Esther's

                  19-month-old daughter. Her little baby. Dead of AIDS.

 

                  Esther needed money for the coffin, and money to rent the flatbed truck to

                  haul the coffin to Mabvuku cemetery, 10 miles from her home. "I asked

                  friends for money. I sold Popsicles.''

 

                  They laid Emmaculate in the ground on a cool, quiet day. Esther couldn't

                  afford a stone. She laid a little blue dish atop her daughter's gravesite so she

                  could find it.

 

                  She turned her attention to her husband, and again, the shovels were

                  swinging. Exactly one month after the death of their daughter, Loton Mafuta

                  died of AIDS.

 

                  Loton had surely passed the disease on to Esther. "He didn't apologize

                  either,'' she says.

 

                  All of her loved ones seemed to be dropping into the ground. Esther still had

                  her two own children, Peter and Desilyn. But now, she had lost both her

                  mother and father. She had lost her baby. She had lost her husband.

 

                  She felt lonely. She was also hurting. She walked to the hospital. She got

                  medicine for stomach ailments. She got medicine for the flu. She needed

                  money for AIDS drugs, but like almost all Africans, there was no way she

                  could afford the high cost of such medication. So she's had to do without it.

 

                  Then word flew in like a poisoned dart that her sister, Naipiri, who had two

                  children - Tsi Tsi and Paul - had died in Malawi of AIDS. Another sister in

                  Malawi, Maria, who had two children named Manyara and Fungai, was

                  bedridden in a hospice with AIDS.

 

                  Naipiri's and Maria's children - Esther's nieces and nephews - were living as

                  orphans in Malawi. Weeks and months passed. She slept fitfully when she

                  slept at all. She had to find those babies. Sick as she was, she had to find

                  them. "I said to myself, `My mother and father kept us well. But now my

                  mother and father are dead. My husband and daughter are dead. My sister is

                  dead. And if I don't find these children, they will be street children.'''

 

                  A doctor, a nurse, her friends, all told Esther to stay put, told her the children

                  would have to fend for themselves.

 

                  Alone, Esther went to the bus depot in August of 1998 and set out to find

                  them. She was carrying her passport in a little plastic bag. She had a little

                  money from the sale of her television set. It took her two days over bumpy

                  roads to reach Malawi, a tiny country set in the Great Rift Valley of

                  southeastern Africa. Compared to other African states, marred by wars and

                  strife, Esther couldn't have picked a better place in which to travel alone.

                  Malawi is peaceful.

 

                  She made her way to the central part of the country, where her sisters had

                  resided, and started asking questions. She got enough answers to keep

                  moving. She slept in guest houses for $2 a night, and when the guest houses

                  were full, she slept outside, in the bush. Some kind souls at the Zimbabwean

                  embassy in the capital, Lilongwe, gave her some food. Days later, still

                  roaming, she came upon some women working in a stall of markets

                  alongside a road, and they gave her more food. She kept going. "I was just

                  walking around,'' she says. "I spent two months sleeping in the bushes. I

                  would tell people I'm from Zimbabwe and I'm looking for these children.''

 

                  There were leads that fell into other leads, only to completely collapse. And

                  then she spotted the first ones. "I found Paul and Allan sleeping outside, in

                  front of a shop.''

 

                  Paul was Naipiri's child. She didn't know who Allan's parents were; he was

                  an orphan who had befriended Paul. Esther scooped him up. Allan pointed

                  into the bush, in the direction where he and Paul had laid Fungai, Maria's

                  boy, while they went to look for food. After a brief search, they found

                  Fungai, alone and screaming.

 

                  She was given another tip: A market lady had seen some kids roaming down

                  a road about a mile away. Esther raced there and spotted Manyara and

                  Elbe, another orphan the children had befriended, on the side of a road. Less

                  than an hour later she found Tsi Tsi near a riverbed.

 

                  "The children didn't know me,'' she says. "They had forgotten me. The

                  children were not eating. They were living like animals.''

 

                  But now she had all four of her two sisters' children: Fungai and Manyara,

                  Tsi Tsi, and Paul. There were three other AIDS orphans she had found with

                  the others that she decided to bring home, too: John, Allan, and Elbe. "If you

                  would have seen me with these children, you would have thought they were

                  getting ready to die the very next day,'' Esther says. "But it was not God's

                  will.''

 

                  The clouds were suddenly lighter. She had the babies. Everyone headed

                  home.

 

                  Only when she returned to Zimbabwe, Esther didn't have a home any longer.

                  She had been staying with her grandfather, but now, because she had so

                  many children with her, he no longer wanted her there.

 

                  She showed up at a side door of the Faith Ministeries Church in Harare. She

                  needed some food and she needed some help.

 

                  "People don't want them on their property,'' Colletta Peta, the social worker,

                  says of Esther and the children she cares for. Peta happened to belong to the

                  church whose door Esther knocked on. "We've managed to get a shack for

                  them,'' Peta says.

 

                  The shack, made mostly of cardboard, is off a dirt road, squeezed in by

                  other shacks. It is 12 feet long and six feet wide. It looks something like a

                  cage one might see in a zoo. Esther says it's better than living in the bush.

 

                  There is no running water. Even in Africa, the nights can get chilly, but Esther

                  and the children have no heat. She's got two blankets. They're thin, and both

                  have holes in them.

 

                  She is crazy about the children.

 

                  "I must love them like they are all with their mothers,'' Esther says. She's

                  sitting on the edge of her tiny bed in the hut. " It's hard,'' she confesses

                  minutes later, her eyes having suddenly teared up.

 

                  Two of the children, Manyara and Peter, are always sniffling. Manyara has

                  open sores on her legs. Esther fears the worst, but she hasn't any money to

                  take them to the clinic to get HIV tests.

 

                  One day, not long ago, Esther got her hands on some cash. That day Fungai

                  was sniffling badly. She rushed him off to the hospital. "But he was negative,''

                  she says about Fungai's HIV test.

 

                  This is how Esther scrapes money together: She buys Popsicles wholesale.

                  Then she borrows a cart and pushes it out to the road. Peter, Desilyn, and

                  Tsi Tsi help her when she's sick. Along with the Popsicles, she totes sacks of

                  popcorn. And sometimes Allan, gifted artistically, scrapes up metal pieces he

                  finds and molds them together, little model figurines. He sells them.

 

                  "How those children struggle day to day,'' says Peta, the social worker.

 

                  There are many mornings, however, when Esther can't lift a Popsicle, much

                  less push a cart out to the side of the road. It's her AIDS; it can keep her in

                  bed for days.

 

                  She hates going to the hospital. "At the clinic,'' she says, "the nurses shun me.

                  When they know you've got AIDS, they don't do too much.''

 

                  She was bedridden just recently. She felt like boulders were rolling around in

                  her stomach. The children huddled around her in the hut, their world

                  suddenly reduced to the skin-and-bones woman lying on the bed. "They

                  were praying for me,'' she says. "I said, `Go play.'''

 

                  Not a child moved.

 

                  She's been brutally honest with the kids, but it just tore her heart that she had

                  to confess to the children that she, too, has AIDS. "I tell them I may wake up

                  sick tomorrow,'' Esther says. "Or I may not wake up at all.''

 

                  Each child has a distinct personality, says Esther.

 

                  When there is food, says Esther, "Fungai likes to eat too much.'' Fungai's

                  smile is wide and sweet. He's four years old and AIDS stole his mother,

                  Maria, who died in May. Fungai prays a lot.

 

                  "John is mischievous in a quiet way,'' Esther says, shooting a glance at John,

                  who smiles back at her.

 

                  "Tsi Tsi likes selling things,'' says Esther. "Popcorn, freezies.'' One moment

                  Esther shows off her medicine, strewn around the little hut. And the next

                  moment, as if by magic, she reaches under a pile of things and pulls the

                  prettiest school uniform out that Tsi Tsi wears to school. All ironed.

 

                  The children are hers now. "I must give them all equal love,'' Esther says. "I

                  cannot favor mine. If I go buy something, I must give each one the same

                  thing. I must give them equal shares. Manyara is my child. Fungai is my

                  child.''

 

                  A man can't move Esther Daiton's heart anymore. "If a man says he loves me

                  again, I will cry. I don't want it. I'm sick.''

 

                  Later in the week, Esther has gotten some food. She has borrowed a hot

                  plate. She fixes margarine sandwiches for the children. Fungai loves

                  margarine sandwiches. She prepares some tea. Tsi Tsi cups her tea like an

                  English queen. There is chicken and rice. A pot falls off the hot plate and a

                  piece of chicken falls onto the dirt. Fungai scrambles for it in a motion so

                  swift it seems almost electric. He picks it up and tosses it back in the pot,

                  and takes his seat again on the dirt.

 

                  Not a child touches the food until it all has been placed on every plate. Until

                  a prayer has been said. The children have lovely - since there is no table -

                  dirt floor manners.

 

                  Esther eats her margarine sandwich. She looks exhausted. But all the

                  children have allowed smiles to flower across their faces.

 

                  A day later, the children, after school, after their tea, are outside playing.

                  Sunshine is everywhere. Everything seems normal. With the exception of so

                  much death. Six members of her immediate family, all gone to AIDS.

 

                  But Esther lives. She's not exactly happy. The school fees are due and she

                  hasn't got a dime. The landlord across the road wants his rent for the shack.

                  She hasn't paid anything in two months. The man's kindness might run out.

 

                  Still, she is happy just to be alive. She was at the hospital not long ago,

                  having problems breathing. She ached all over. Plans were made to admit

                  her. "They wanted to give me a bed,'' she says. "I said no to the nurses. I had

                  to get back home. The nurses said, `Why?' I said, `I've got these children.'''

 

                  Esther walked back home, and the children - her babies, as she calls them -

                  loved the sight of her.