I’d heard the term used before. Heard it and shuddered. Partly in disbelief, partly in horror. But the truth doesn’t change according to our ability to stomach it. ’Child Headed Household’. And so I sat in a swelteringly hot mud hut in rural Kwazu Natal, South Africa and met the story behind the label and the faces behind the statistic. Through the tears of two orphans whose parents had died of HIV, I listened to Bhekini (18) and Zama (23) tell me their story.
TEAR Fund’s partner) ACAT so that she could provide food to eat and make a little money with the excess vegetables. She died in 2007. After she passed there was a tremendous change. Life became very difficult. We went from having – to not having. There was (and still is) nobody to support us."
Bhekini continued, “After Mum died I was given a grant from the government for school. Zama had to pull out of school as we could no longer afford it and the grant I received had to stretch to include food, clothing, shelter, books and writing materials for all four of us. Because of our situation we cannot all go to school. One has to go and then the other one will follow. Sometimes we go hungry just so we can buy a school book.
Zama added, “Today I take care of my siblings. I try to do piecemeal jobs like washing for others to earn a small amount. Sometimes there is not enough food so we have to go without. Daily I am fetching firewood and water from far away. As you can see we live in a very small house with little things. The day Mum died there was this great pain and shock knowing we were all alone.”
Unable to continue and with tears streaming down her face, I stopped our interview. As we locked eyes I felt overwhelmed with a deep sense of sadness and empathy. Here, before me was a young girl that could very well have been me. Like I, she was also the eldest of four siblings. A mere eight years younger, we’d faced a very different life. This ‘accident of latitude’ meant that she was born into a community of poverty where disease ravages families and I was born into comparative luxury. I could physically see the weight of responsibility for taking care of all her siblings a heavy burden for her slender frame to carry.
Zama continued, “Right before Mum died in 2007, she joined an ACAT group. She was taught how to create a small but fruitful garden that sustained our family. After she died, the garden fell into disrepair. ACAT then helped us as siblings apply for government grants. The group our Mother was part of have continued to support us for five years by giving us some clothes, a couple of meals a week and general advice on taking care of ourselves. Recently the group have said they want to help us rebuild our home and have purchased some bricks for us. The ACAT team leader has started showing us how to revive the garden so that we can have enough food to eat. It is my wish that if one day I have my own family, I don’t forget my siblings. I will help them with whatever I can.”
Behklini said, “I have accepted that I don’t have parents and that I will have to put it upon my shoulders to work hard in order to get to where I want to be. Through the garden we will be able to eat produce and save the money we would normally spend on buying vegetables. The ACAT garden is our hope.”
About ten minutes after I left their humble home, the local ACAT staff member I was with told me that the children hadn’t been able to have breakfast that morning. I felt sick. Food insecurity was the last thing these children should have to worry about. Thankfully, TEAR Fund’s partner ACAT is helping some of the most vulnerable people in Kwazu Natal to become food secure. People like Behkini and Zama in a child headed household. By simply helping to establish secure access to on-going nutritional needs, ACAT’s making room at the table for the vulnerable in our world. The food is not the answer to all their problems, but it’s the first piece of a poverty puzzle this family can start solving. But in order to do this for them and for others ACAT needs our support.
For this young group of siblings, their mothers legacy lives on in an ACAT garden that holds within it some serious potential for a gift that will keep on giving. It’s their ticket to a food secure home and a hope for the future. As they start the long process of cultivating the rocky land that surrounds them and a mountain of memories deeply entrenched within every piece of soil, I pray they’d lift up their weary heads and know their parents would be ever so proud.