Many thousands of South African children live in homes with no parents, largely as a result of HIV/Aids. Life is desperate for the children left at the head of their families.
At the age of 10, Nokubonga Qaba was left with the daunting responsibility of raising her four younger siblings in a remote village in Eastern Cape Province.
Now aged 17, she says her family knows the pain of going to bed on an empty stomach all too well. “Sometimes there is no food in the house for days and I have to go knocking on neighbours’ doors begging for food for my family,” she says. “Sometimes they give, sometimes they don’t.”
Her plight is not unique in South Africa. About 150,000 youngsters are raised by other children after their parents die. Many of the deaths are blamed on Aids-related illnesses – South Africa has the highest prevalence of the disease anywhere in the world.
Nokubonga’s parents died from tuberculosis in 2002 leaving her and her siblings in the care of their ailing grandmother. When her grandmother died in 2004, Nokubonga assumed the role of mother, father and sister. “We lived on grandmother’s pension money, which wasn’t a lot, so when she also died our lives took a turn for the worse,” she says. With her siblings – and now her own one-week-old son – to look after, her days start at 0400 with a walk of at least 12km (seven miles) from their village mud-hut to collect firewood and clean water. “It gets so cold in the morning sometimes that my entire body goes numb and I can hardly walk,” she says. “It’s not easy at all, but I know I have to do it. I need the water to cook porridge for us and the rest so we can bath.”
Her brothers and sister all call her mama.
They were between two and seven years old when their parents died, and their real mother and father are a faded memory. In the family home all six children huddle around a fire made on the floor in the main room of the house – which serves as a kitchen and the lounge. Rusty pots are piled up on a table in the corner along with plastic plates. There appears to be little or no food in the house. “It wasn’t always like this,” Nokubonga says. “When our parents were still alive we didn’t have to worry about a lot of things. Food, clothes and money to go to school… things were easier.”
When her grandmother died she was helped by a non-governmental organisation in the nearby town of Lusikisiki to negotiate a government grant. Reverend Mthimkulu Msikinya, head of the Lusikisiki Child Abuse Resource Centre, says most of the families still live in desperate poverty despite the allowance.
There is only one bed it is shared by five children
“We help where we can but in the end a grant can only do so much,” he says.
The town has seen a rising number of households where children bring up other children, he says. “Diseases such as HIV/Aids have had an enormous impact in the number of children who are orphaned and left having to fend for themselves,” he says.
Nokubonga does not get any financial help from the father of her baby – he is still in school and his family, like hers and many others in Eastern Cape Province, is living from hand to mouth.
She receives 650 rand ($87; £53) of foster grant every month, but this does not go far in a country battling a recession and soaring food prices.
“Sometimes the money gets finished in the middle of the month and we run out of food,” she says. She has an older sister, 23-year-old Zodwa, who does not live with them but sends a small amount of money when she has been able to land part-time work.
Nokubonga returned to classes in 2007, when they began receiving the grant – but there is not enough money for them all to attend. She hopes to get her younger sister Zanele, who is looking after the baby during the day, back into school next year and her brothers after that. Despite all the hardship Nokubonga is determined to persevere with her school work and she wants to become a social worker. In the meantime, she survives on grants, food parcels and old clothes donated by the community, trying to give her brothers and sister an easier life than she has had.