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Almost a million children orphaned by Aids in the Congo 21/6/01
The Luvangadio family live in a
tiny brick shack in the Congolese
capital, Kinshasa. The children
don't go to school. They haven't
the money, and spend their days
playing in the dirt yard. Their
father, a taxi driver, died of AIDS
five years ago. And now their
mother Antoinette is dying. She
lies on the bare concrete floor.
Unlike many AIDS sufferers,
she does have some help, a visit
twice a week from Charlotte Fatou,
a nurse with the local charity Amo
Congo. Antoinette complains her
ribs are painful after so much time
on the floor. Charlotte says she
will try to find a mattress. But
it's hard to protect your possessions
when your front door is a flimsy
curtain. Six children also share
this tiny room. Charlotte tells the
eldest of the children that she
ought to be learning dress-making.
The family desperately need money.
It's difficult for the children
because their mother can't work,
and she is the one who looks after
her children's future. She is
completely weakened. There is no
way she can earn money.
CHARLOTTE FATOU (TRANSLATION):
It's difficult for the children because
as you can see the mother can't work
and she is the one who looks after the
children's future. She is completely
weakened, there is no way she can
earn any money.
Tragedies like this are repeated,
constantly, right across Africa, on a
scale that's almost inconceivable.
Over 25 million people are living with
HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. As
families are destroyed, 12 million
children have been orphaned. Here
in the Congo the problem is made
worse by the continuing war and an
almost complete absence of
government help. It's left to women
like Charlotte Fatou to spend her
days visiting those dying of AIDS.
Her next call is Jacqueline Bowu,
whose husband died of the disease
four years ago. She's worried not
just by her illness, but by the
poverty it has brought her. Until
now she has survived thanks to one
of her ten children, a daughter who
is a market trader. Now she's been
jailed for handling stolen goods and
there's no money coming in.
JACQUELINE BOWU (TRANSLATION):
Today I have nothing to eat, and
I didn't eat yesterday. I was given
some maize, but there is none left.
And what about your children?
The children don't have any food.
They can't go to school because
I can't afford the fees. I can't
afford the rent for this house, so
they are trying to make me move
Those who live along the banks
of the Congo river in this sprawling
and dilapidated city are used to
hardship, despite the potential
wealth of this vast country. It was
plundered by Mobutu, ripped apart
by foreign armies in the war, and
now faces economic upheaval as the
new President, Joseph Kabila,
scraps low fuel prices and lets the
currency float. That move may
please the IMF, but it has forced
up prices, which makes life even
harder for those with HIV/AIDS and
unable to earn a living. For those
who can afford treatment, Kinshasa
has a general hospital, the largest
in the country. Patients pay for
everything their beds, treatment,
medicines where available, even HIV
tests, and rely on families or friends
to bring them food. Even a public
ward like this costs two dollars a day,
well out of the reach of many who
are sick. Those with tuberculosis,
which is often AIDS-related, do
get free TB drugs, under a scheme
run in Kinshasa by a consortium of
NGOs and charities. But there are
no free drugs in the maternity ward,
where we found a mother weeping
over her dead child. When a mother
is HIV-positive, her youngest two
or three children are often found
to be infected too. But if there
were the will and the money, this
could be tackled. According to the
government's own figures, at least
12% of the children born in Kinshasa
are HIV-positive. And that could
easily be stopped with a course of
drugs to the mother in labour and
the new-born. But it's simply not
happening. The drugs are not here,
and even if they were, no-one could
afford them. They would have to be
provided free. There is, of course,
the danger that children saved in
this way could soon become orphans
if no steps are also taken to
prolong the lives of their mothers.
And the orphans of parents killed
by AIDS now present a massive
social problem for the Congo and
for Africa. An English lesson at St
Valentine school, out near Kinshasa
airport. Almost all the children
are orphans, their fees paid by
a Congolese charity. Judith
Tudiongonga is just 15. Her mother
died of AIDS three years ago, her
father one year ago. Now when she
leaves school, she has to walk home
in her broken shoes, a journey of
nearly an hour, and act like a mother
herself. Her two brothers and sister,
aged from nine to six, have been
waiting for her return. They are a
sad, quiet, young family, worried
about their future. Judith wants to
find a job when she leaves school
so she can continue to look after
them. But she's terrified that they
could all lose their home. An aunt,
a member of her father's family, is
trying to seize the house, a common
practice in Kinshasa, where a
surviving wife and children often
find themselves evicted after a
husband has died.
JUDITH TUDIONGONGA (TRANSLATION):
Without my parents, there are only
difficulties, suffering and sadness.
What do you miss the most?
What we miss most is the affection
and love of our parents. We get no
love from anyone. No-one cares
What if you lose the house?
We're being threatened, and I can't
defend myself. I'll have to submit to
my aunt and where do we go then?
I'd have to try to find someone
to look after me.
Kinshasa is a city that lives on the
street. Despite its poverty and painful
history, it's famous across Africa
for its music and parties. But away
from the bright lights, there is a
new night life. The streets have
become home for literally tens of
thousands of orphans who lost their
families to the war, or to AIDS.
The boys operate in little gangs,
getting food however they can,
often by scavenging or thieving,
and sleep in groups in doorways.
According to the government's own
figures, there are 900,000 orphans
across the country. It's a vicious
cycle. AIDS brings poverty, which
in turn leads to a further spread
of the disease as girls, some mere
children, turn to prostitution. This
group said they were 13, but some
looked even younger.
UNNAMED GIRL (TRANSLATION):
Life is hard. There is no-one to help
us and that is why we decided do this.
You are an orphan, your parents are
UNNAMED GIRL 2 (TRANSLATION):
I am an orphan.
Are you frightened of getting AIDS?
Do you take any precautions?
UNNAMED GIRL 3 (TRANSLATION):
No. There are men who are strong
and take us by force. They can rape
you and dump you the following day.
We can't defend ourselves.
The sheer number of AIDS orphans
living on the streets is already
causing concern. In Kinshasa, a
teacher, Pascal Rukengwa, has set
up a project to find work for a few
of the children, warning that the
future development of the country
could be threatened by so many
young people growing up on the
streets with no education.
PASCAL RUKENGWA (TRANSLATION):
In the future we will certainly
become slaves. There is no future
for the country, if the young people
who are to build the new state are
not educated, if they don't learn to
work or live like men. In the street
people live like animals. If they don't
learn how to live, to be citizens, they
won't build families, because they are
not men. They can't build a state. It
will be catastrophic.
Is there any help from the government?
No, no, no, there is no help from the
government. There are speeches from
time to time. They announce things
on television, but in practical terms
there is nothing. Look at the
government budget, when there is
one. The amount devoted to social
programmes is ridiculous. And now
it's got worse, because everything
goes on the war.
The Kinshasa government does run
a national programme for the fight
against AIDS. It's headed by a doctor
who has a budget for an office and
staff, and who attends international
conferences, he'll be at the UN in
New York next week. Jean-Pierre
Musengela knows what he'd like to
see done, he'd liked drugs to stop
an AIDS awareness programme, and
free schooling for all AIDS orphans.
But he doesn't have the money.
DR JEAN-PIERRE MUSENGELA (TRANSLATION):
I agree that the government does
not do enough. I know why the
government has not given enough
money until now. It's not an excuse
that's given lightly. It's an
everyday reality that all the
efforts are focused on the war.
Even my salary has not gone up
because of the war.
In Kinshasa, the continuing war is
blamed for everything. The city's
population has been swollen by the
"displaced" who have fled here to
escape the fighting, which has involved
some six foreign African armies
supporting either the Kinshasa
government or the other factions.
Some who have moved to Kinshasa
come here to the Ngiri Ngiri
quarter, where there's a project
for women with HIV/AIDS. Like
AMO Congo and Nouvelle Humanity,
Fondation Femme Plus work in
partnership with the British group
Christian Aid. They run a workshop
and a successful little restaurant
that makes money for women who have
often lost their homes after the
death of their husbands. Bernadette
Mulelebwe, the organisation's
director, argues that in the Congo,
AIDS is spread by poverty and by
the war. Rape has been used as a
BERNADETTE MULELEBWE (TRANSLATION):
In this war, among the weapons that
have been used is the AIDS virus. Most
of the armies that have entered the
Congo are armies that are infected.
We know from reports that thousands
of women have been raped, young
and old, on purpose so that they can
catch the virus.
She took me to meet a group of
women who had escaped from the
fighting in the east. The two
youngest girls are both now
HIV-positive. Madeleine Mwayuma
made a remarkable journey. Her
daughter Yvette, who is mute, was
captured by Rwandan troops in
Kisangani, a thousand miles away
up the Congo river. Madeleine
managed to find her, and they
escaped together by canoe.
MADELINE MWAYUMA (TRANSLATION):
She was there with this Rwandan
for four months, and forced to live
as his wife, it was four months
of suffering. She was beaten by
this man right up until I went to
And now she is HIV-positive?
Yvette is HIV-positive. She has been
very ill and since we have been in
Kinshasa she suffers. We've been
chased from where we were living
because she is HIV-positive.
Rebecca Suguru also escaped from
the east, travelling with her husband.
The journey ended in disaster
only when she reached Kinshasa.
When I fled from the east I left
with my husband. When we got
here, he had his family here and
they didn't accept me because we
are not from the same province.
They threw me out of the house.
I knew no-one here so I found myself
on the street. To survive I was
forced to sell myself to men. That's
how I became HIV-positive.
So she too is a victim of the war
and poverty. At Kinshasa's main
cemetery, there's a constant sad
parade. Several funerals take place
at once. Next week, the UN General
Assembly's AIDS summit will consider
the continuing crisis in Africa.
What's needed in the Congo is clear,
mass education, help for the street
orphans, drugs, particularly to stop
and an end to the war.