Woes of child-headed homes

Life in Ntfonjeni village is typical of so many rural communities in Swaziland.

It is situated just north of the sedate town of Piggs Peak and life there is no longer one of joy and happiness, but of simple survival.

For the residents of Ntfonjeni it has become particularly tough - and in some cases unbearably so.

Unemployment in the area is staggeringly high. Apart from the nearby sawmill and the recently refurbished Piggs Peak Hotel, job opportunities are virtually nonexistent.

There is no running water or electricity and with winter settling in it's certain that the next few months will take their toll.

But a new tragedy has slowly been unfolding in this remote part of Swaziland - child-headed households caused by Aids.

The pandemic is rife in this tiny African nation. Despite numerous governmentsponsored awareness programmes, the disease continues to wreak havoc in communities, bringing with it a whole new range of socio-economic challenges.

"Education is the key to trying to stem the number of infections but it is a battle we don't seem to be winning," says Treasure Mswali, coordinator for BoshAid, a privately funded organisation that looks after Aids orphans in the Piggs Peak region.

Ntfonjeni village is not an easy place to find. Dirt roads, no signposts and then a long walk down a path through thick undergrowth until eventually you come across a small cluster of homes.

Women from the local Methodist Church - immaculately dressed in their bright red-and-white uniforms - stand in groups and chatter.

Children, still in their school uniforms, scurry about gathering firewood to help fight off the biting cold.

It is here, in Ntfonjeni, that I meet the Kunene's.

Nkosing'phile Kunene is a good-looking young man. Strong features, a lovely smile and a wicked laugh. In any other environment he would go far.

Given the opportunity he would be a success - who knows, a lawyer perhaps, an accountant or even a doctor.

But for Nkosing'phile life consists of looking after his brothers and sister, who have all been orphaned because of Aids.

"Sometimes I dream about what might have been," he says.

"I don't feel cheated but I can't help thinking how things might have been different had my parents still been alive. I might have had more opportunities but I guess it wasn't meant to be."

Having lost his parents - his mother Thembie in 1999 and father Simon in 2001 - at the age of 17, Nkosing'phile became head of the household.

A young boy suddenly had the responsibilities of an adult thrust on him.

His days consist of looking after his two younger brothers and one sister, who are all still going to school.

The day begins early for the family. Water must be fetched from a nearby river for bathing.

"We must get there early before the cattle come to drink otherwise it gets dirty," Nkosing'phile says.

It's a long day for the kids at school. Classes begin at 7am and finish at 4:30pm.

A new curriculum introduced to schools this year means longer hours for pupils, explained Mswali, who through her organisation provides support for 23 orphans in the Piggs Peak area.

"Last year we could still afford to buy bread," says Nkosing'phile. "But this year we have to do without because it has become so expensive.

"After collecting firewood I get the fire going so when my brothers and sister come home from school at lunch time there is some food for them."

What was once a chicken coop is now a makeshift kitchen, with enamel mugs and plates neatly stored away.

In the centre of the room cold embers bear testimony to yesterday's meal.

The Kunene's are having to survive on one meal a day consisting of beans and porridge. Once or twice a week - if they are lucky - they will have some meat.

Growing up Nkosing'phile had dreams of one day being a policeman.

"The police do good work and I saw it as a way of helping people. Maybe when the kids have left school I can still become a policeman," he says.

As a young man Nkosing'phile has had to sacrifice so much.

Instead of hanging out with his friends, dating girls and enjoying life, his time is spent helping with homework and making sure his siblings are taken care of as best he can.

The whole time while talking to Nkosing'phile, I had a nagging feeling that something was missing in this young man's life. And then I realised that he is still a boy but in a man's body.

His childhood and teenage years have been stolen from him but try as he may he is not equipped for the decisions of an adult.

His is a life full of unanswered questions and confusion and one with an uncertain future.

Going to bed hungry is nothing new for this family of four. They share one room that consists of a single bed and little else. A straw mat provides little relief from the ice-cold concrete floor on which two of the boys must sleep.

The family still talk of days gone by when after eating a meal with their parents they would listen to their father tell them stories about his trips to Johannesburg.

Mesmerised by his tales of the bright lights of Jozi they would fall asleep after family prayers.

Sadly these nights they simply dream of a better future and contemplate what might have been.

Unfortunately Nkosing'phile's belief in religion and God has been shattered.

"Yes I still believe in God ... but I am very angry with God.

"Why did he steal my parents from us?" he asks.