From the Christian Science Monitor, writer Scott Baldauf gives us one family's heartbreaking story.
There are days when Olga Thimbela thinks it was a mistake to take in the orphaned children of her sister and her aunt. Life before the arrival of these six children – whose mothers both died of AIDS – was not easy. But after their arrival, Olga says, her life became impossible.
Today, her marriage is on the rocks, her health is suffering, her own biological children get only a fraction of her time, and her relatives all think she is rich because of the $90-per-month foster-care grants she receives for each of her schoolgoing foster children.
The strain of looking after nine children – three of her own, six of her extended family – and fending off greedy relatives has finally brought Olga to the breaking point.
“Sometimes I feel like I made a mistake to take these children,” says Olga, standing in her neat shack, her 6-month-old infant girl, Hlumelo, tied to her back with a blanket. Olga is in tears. “I think, maybe if I didn’t take these children, I could take care of my own kids. Everything is destroyed in my life. My family. My marriage. Everything.”
If Olga were the only South African woman looking after other people’s children, her story would be a mere individual tragedy. But Olga Thimbela is just one of hundreds of thousands of South Africans who are looking after the estimated 1.4 million children who have lost one or both parents because of AIDS. The majority of AIDS orphans are looked after by members of their own extended families, an extraordinary cultural generosity that many South Africans say is rooted in the philosophy of ubuntu, where individual happiness takes a back seat to collective well-being. But in a country where 43 percent of the population live below the poverty line, ubuntu means that families who are already desperately poor and barely able to feed themselves must stretch their resources even further to take in others.
When we first met Olga Thimbela and her husband, Pontsho Monamodi, in early 2007, they were a happy couple making the best they could of a difficult situation. Olga was still taking jobs as a housekeeper. Pontsho, a former South African Army reserve soldier, found unsteady employment as a security guard. Older children like 24-year-old Elizabeth and 18-year-old Thabang helped to look after younger children, and 13-year-old Bulelwa would help the children with their schoolwork.
But then, Olga says, the government grants that were intended to help Olga and Pontsho pay for the upkeep of her relatives’ children, became a source of friction in Olga’s family. In the times when Pontsho and Olga were both working, extended family members would demand their share – based on the notion that those doing well should look after those who are poorer. And when Olga or Pontsho would be temporarily out of work, Olga says, her relatives would come by and criticize them for “eating the children’s money.”