"Suffer the little children to come unto Me" 


One of the consequences of the HIV/AIDS Pandemic is the growing number of Orphans and Vulnerable children. In Zambia it is estimated that out of a total population of twelve million people, there are more than one million orphans. This has put a great strain on the extended family, which has always been a cultural value, where uncles and aunts supported their nephews and nieces. Today many grandmothers are left to look after their grandchildren who have lost their parents. With sixty-five percent of the population living on less than a dollar a day, there is much poverty, unemployment and even hunger, so it very difficult for these old ladies to support their orphaned grandchildren adequately.

Sr. Marie comforts grandmother
Sr. Marie comforts grandmother
Apart from the physical and medical needs of these children many have great psychological needs as they are coping with the effects of trauma and the loss of their parents. In Zambia the custom was not to allow children to attend funerals and sometimes the children were sent away during the mourning period and do not even know where their parents are buried. While this was meant as a protection, it makes it more difficult for the child to accept death and may add to their sadness and confusion. After the funeral, the children are often divided up and sent to various relatives who are willing to take them, so are separated from their brothers and sisters, which is another great loss.

What will the future hold for me?In our Home Based Care Programme at Ng'ombe Compound, (shanty town), Lusaka, we care for many such children providing them with nutrition, medical care, school fees, books, shoes etc.  Now that many of our HIV positive clients are living positively and their health has improved considerably, we feel we need to concentrate more on helping the orphans and vulnerable children (those who may have ill parents or live in abject poverty) so we are trying to help them cope with some of their psychological needs.

There are various initiatives to help adults and children to cope with their grief, loss and time of transition. There are different "Memory Works" which includes various methodological approaches in psychosocial support that work with memory. One of these is the "Hero Book" workshop where children and young adults pass through a group process in which they learn to formulate the major challenges they face and to develop strategies to overcome them.

Recently we held such a workshop for five days for seventeen Orphans and it was a very helpful experience for them. In a group, the children were guided through creative exercises, using simple art, narrating their life story, during which they learn to deal with specific challenges in their life.

My hero bookWhile the focus is on personal problems and challenges, they draw great support from each other when they learn that others had to face similar problems. Children need to express their sadness and talking about their departed parents is one way of doing this. One such story was the child was alone with the ill mother, who told the child "I am going to sleep" and when the father came and went in to see his wife, she was already dead but the child could not understand as he believed the mother was only asleep.

It was sad listening to their stories. When asked to identify a "hero" in their life, one child said "Pauline" (our treasurer) was was her hero because she gave her money to go to the hospital. Another child said "Sr. Marie" because when her mother died she cried but then remembered that Sr. Marie My Shining Momentwould look after her. Another said her aunt loved her but the children of her aunt do not and treat her badly. Another one said she was not allowed to go to the funeral and wants her mother to come back as she misses her so much. They also look at good experiences (shining moments) and simple things were mentioned, for example, "for me it was the day I was told I would go to school ", for another "it was the day my uncle gave me a pair of new shoes" or "when my parents died I felt very sad but I pray for them every day".

At the end of the process, the child owns a personal notebook a "Hero Book" that tells his/her story and reinforces their hero like qualities of survival and resilience and so gives the child courage and hope. Some of the participants who were very shy at first, really came to life and there was a sense of great happiness as the expressed their hope for the future

"I want to be a soldier to protect my grandmother"
"I want to be a lawyer" -
"I want to be a nurse to look after the sick".
"I want to have a big shop and sell mealie meal"

The workshop gave the children a sense of their own identity and personal worth and value. They were reassured that they were little "heroes" that have come through many traumatic experiences successfully and so they have hope for the future. They also know that God is their friend who will continue to support them.

Sr. Marie O'Brien Lusaka. February 2009