Mwesli looks after 29 needy orphans

From atop Boshimela Mountain, you can see the Phoponyane Valley in all its splendour.

Aaah, this valley of a dozen hills is breathtakingly beautiful beyond description.

Winding dirt roads, open spaces, blue skies and homesteads clinging to the hillocks like dead flies.

It is when one wanders around this small Swaziland village that one is assailed by the desperation, the poverty and the hopelessness of the people of Phoponyane. How can such physical beauty be home to such wretchedness?

There is a school there, the Ntfonjeni High School, where more than half of its 800 students are orphans.

The fact that this northern part of the Piggs Peak area has a population that can fit into FNB stadium and still leave room for a soccer spectacle is beyond belief.

The first thought that comes to mind is the HIV-Aids epidemic. But Treasure Msweli, the principal care giver of these orphans, refuses to dwell too much on the scourge.

"It is unfortunate that when one talks about such a huge number of orphans, many tend to think of Aids. We forget that road accidents also result in orphans," she says.

But she maintains that all her orphans have voluntarily taken HIV-Aids tests and all of them have come out with a clean bill of health.

At one hamlet nearby, four boys, the eldest of whom is 23, share a single room. This is because the structure their late parents started building is still incomplete.

Since the death of their parents, the four brothers have had to fend for themselves.

They have had no job prospects, not even for the articulate eldest sibling, who matriculated two years ago.

The unfinished chicken broiler nearby serves as the kitchen where the boys cook their meals on an open fire using wood harvested from the nearby forest.

"I don't know how we would have survived if it was not for our new mother," said one of the youths looking at Msweli, 37, addressed as "mom" by at least 29 other children in the valley.

Msweli's task as principal care giver of the orphans at Phopong is an unenviable task for the single mother of two.

She was recruited by former politician and now philanthropist, Frederick van Zyl Slabbert and his wife Jane. This is a job she has almost single-handedly been doing.

Msweli runs the affairs of Bosh Aid, a non-profit organisation, which is a stone's throw from the rambling estate of the Slabberts.

It is atop the mountains in the northern part of Piggs Peak, Swaziland.

The organisation is funded by Slabbert and his wife.

The relationship between the Mswelis and the Slabbert family is an enduring legend.

Stretching back three generations, Msweli's grandmother worked for Jane Slabbert's granny. Her mom worked for Jane's mom and now her younger sister works for Jane.

"I think this is one of the reasons 'Van' has so much faith and trust in me," says Msweli.

It is obvious the running of Bosh Aid lies squarely on Msweli as the Slabberts spend time on their numerous other projects and divide their time between their Swaziland and Johannesburg homes.

The orphans are not housed in one place. In fact, all of them stay at homes of relatives because, according to Msweli, the idea was not to separate the children from surviving family members and familiar surroundings.

But unknown to many South Africans, Slabbert has since 2005 quietly dedicated his time and resources to the needy in the mountain kingdom, the home country of his wife.

Each year he pays school fees for all 30 orphans and every month, he buys groceries worth R300 for each one.

He also provides R100 as stipend to each caregiver.

It may not seem much by suburban standards, but it makes a big difference in the lives of the orphans and many villagers who have no hope of finding employment.

Across the dry bed of the lake is a school where another orphan, Jabulani Dlamini, 17 is doing the equivalent of grade nine. Dlamini, who is being cared for by his 23-year-old sister, is a brilliant student.

He could have gone further with his schooling had it not been for the fact that every year he has to stop schooling to work to raise fees for the coming year's schooling.

He managed to pay for himself at primary school through part jobs.

Even today, and unlike his peers, school holidays are not meant for resting or chasing hares.

He regularly does odd jobs at the local lodge where he earns about R30 a week, barely enough to buy books.

The thought of such a burden on someone so young saddens Msweli.

"Everyone in the world must get involved," she said.

Further up the road at Mshingisha Primary School, a 15-year-old girl sits alone at a desk near the blackboard.

She is an albino and characteristically short- sighted.

This is why she is positioned right near the board.

Her spectacles are thanks to Msweli and the Slabberts.

Twenty-five years ago, her mother gave birth to a bouncy baby boy.

He turned out to be an albino. The second child was also an albino.

Because of cultural taboos, taunts and humiliation, the mother abandoned her children and fled the village, never to be seen again.

These children too became Msweli's burden.

The fourth daughter in a family of six, Msweli completed her primary schooling at Mshingishigi and proceeded to Ntfonjeni High School.

She then left the village for the city of Manzini, where she worked for a motoring company as a receptionist, while still pursuing her secretarial courses.

From there, she joined a furniture retailer, where she worked as an accountant before working in a hardware store.

She worked there for a year before the retailer closed shop.

In December 2005, the Slabberts came knocking and she answered their call.

She visits each orphan twice a month at home and three times at school to monitor their progress and provide parental support.

"I want to be able to tackle a potential problem early. Fortunately, all my kids are doing well at school."

At the end of every school term, she gathers all her 'children' to the Slabbert's estate where they celebrate in the company of their benefactors, including Frederick and his wife.

Msweli talks fondly about both her employers, adding that "Van" is the father of the nation.

"He's done so much for the kids around here and he hardly sings from the rooftops about it," she says.

In fact, Van has also been a benefactor to 15 other kids whom he helped educate.

Some of them are academically successful now, working for large corporations in Swaziland and in neighbouring South Africa.