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