Poverty and Aids

Poverty compounds the hopelessness of the victims of Aids in our Diocese of Kokstad. Because the ill are poor there is no way of going to hospital, they are hungry and so can’t take medicine, they are too weak to work. Virginia Ngwenya, a diocesan trained Home Based Carer brought 13 orphans from her little village to the monthly meeting in the church. The orphans have no food, no adult in the house, they have no school, no papers and no welfare. Virginia tries from her own skimpy resources and what the Catholic Mission can give.

In the diocese each parish has a team of Home-based Carers. There is a supervisor responsible for each of the parish teams. We meet regularly to discuss problems in our diocese which has about 30% HIV infection.   Again and again we come up against the question of poverty. In the parish of Taylorville with some 30,000 people there is no social worker, one nurse and a mobile clinic which comes around on a flying visit once a month. In this parish our Carers have well over 100 orphans for whom they try to provide keeping the orphans together at home.

Fr Egbert O’Dea , with help from his family and parish in Clarenbridge, has initiated projects with gardens, a few cows, sewing. Besides the food provided sales of produce allow his parish to transport to distant offices for necessary forms, funerals and medicine.

The University of the Western Cape conducted a survey of the standard of living in Mount Frere parish over the last number of years. Mt Frere has 45 villages- 18 of which have catholic churches and communities.

In the report it is found that children who are discharged from hospital recovering from severe mulnutrition are once more faced with hunger when they leave the hospital.

The real household income in the area is R534 per month, ( about 60 Euro) usually in the form of a old age pension. The whole family depend on the grandmothers pension.

Though the Government provides a child Welfare Grant, 12 Euro per month, only one in ten children in the area are not receiving this Welfare grant. In the recent budget the government has raised the age from 7 to 14 and raised the grant to 19 Euro per month.

About 90 % of homes are mud walled, 85 % use a river for water and 80% don’t have a toilet of any type.

Out of the thirteen staple items expected in a food cupboard of any kitchen only two were found in half of the homes. Mealie-meal was available in 80% and Tea or Coffee in 75%. Two of the families had none of the items. Other staple items on the list include samp, beans , flower, soup, sugar, eggs and rice, and milk.

Between 115 to 200 children are being admitted per year for mulnutrion at Mary Theresa Hospital in Mount Frere. Between 63% of and 75 % of these admissions could be directly due to the lack of food. None of these children- though they have a legal right to such- had a child support grant at the time of admission.

When we ask our Home based carers to make sure that all our children are recipients of the Government Child support grant they run into difficulties once they take the children to the offices.

In some villages Government officials came to help residents to prepare the required documentation. However in one village, none reported having been successful in securing the grant over the period of a year.


In some situations the mothers or care- givers are simply unable to pay transport to get to the relevant Government offices. On frequent occasions, having spent money to get to the office, they are then requested to come back at another time. And travel is very expensive especially if you have nothing.

The child support grant was often refused because the surname of the child is different to the surname of the guardian, a situation which is common when the primary care giver is the grandmother. The child support grant fails because the child has no birth certificate. When the parents of a child is dead, it is very difficult to get the proper documentation to put the child on the Welfare programme.

Father Sizwe Mkhonza in the parish of Hardenberg has good relations with both Home Affairs and with the Social Welfare Workers. He collects groups of children and parents and takes them to the Government office. He knows in advance what is required to attain a grant. The parent must have an ID document, and the children must have a birth certificate. Orphans must have the parents’ death certificates- often absent.

At one time in the past the catholic baptismal certificate was accepted. However, there are six thousand independent churches in South Africa and many of these buy books of baptismal certificates for their own churches and issue them without any reference to reality. So the Social Welfare workers cannot depend on baptismal certificates anymore. Another problems for officials is that many thieves hire children whom they use to raise grants and then discard the child.

In the diocese we send food into the homes that are most needy. We buy specially prepared soup which is distributed by the Home based Carers. We give the family a supply for a few weeks. With that we add maize. This is broken into 5 kilo bags and distributed with the soup. The Southern African Catholic Bishop’s desk in Pretoria offers certain funds for projects. We are very grateful for those people who have supported the diocese financially to put in place these programs.

Only with nourishment can those suffering from Aids have any chance whatsoever of recovery. It is almost impossible for our people to get or to pay for the medication to slow down the Aids progress. Funerals are a large part of our pastoral work.

We are besieged by poor people asking for assistance. It is humiliating to listen to good, proud people begging for help. Here is a person proud of his traditions and family, self-reliant for years, still trying to maintain the outwards signs of respectablity to neighbours sitting like a pauper before you. It is agonising to see them beating about the bush with words designed to hide their need. We can only remember St Vincent de Paul to the first Sisters of Charity in Paris; “The poor will only forgive you your alms if you love them”.

Fr Egbert has always taught his people that through Baptism they must act and live in Charity. In the Aids disaster this has provided profound motivation for his people to see the sick as children of God and service done to the sick as done to Jesus Himself.

Spiritual accompaniment is crucial. Secular Humanism provides nothing in the line of motivation in sitting with the dying, washing and cleaning the very ill, and giving your own crust to the hungry. There are very few media personnel on the hill of Thlangwini.

The Home Carers come crushed with a sense of helplessness and terror. They report of patients who say that frogs are jumping all over them- something which traditionally is linked with witchcraft. They speak of emaciated patients swelling up in death so that the coffins have to be bound with ropes. Assured of the all-conquoring power of Jesus they know that no bewitching evil can touch them.

Liam Slattery ofm