Monday, January 26, 2009

Mih Goes to School

Mih had not attended school since coming back to the village with his sick family. Before Mih became ill and before his father and mother passed away, he had been attending the local government primary school. The school was located in a valley 5 miles away from the village. About 600 children attended the primary school and Mih had been one of them, having been placed in standard four. He should have been in class 6 but because of illness he had missed several classes and had to repeat some classes, something he hated very much. The first time he attended class, he was forced to sit on the floor because he had not brought a desk, nor had he paid the school levy for the purchase of one. On that first day he had carried his books from his previous school in Douala only to find that they used different books here in the village. Even his writing exercise books were not the ones specified by the school authorities.

There was a requirement to have a uniform that consisted of a blue shirt and Khaki pants. Mih did not have the prescribed uniform. His entire wardrobe consisted of one torn shirt that had been stitched several times; two pairs of shorts given by his uncle and a used sweatshirt that Mih held on to for dear life. He slept in it. Dressed up in it. And even when it was too hot he carried his sweatshirt over his shoulder. Shoes were optional because of the cost, so a very few children wore shoes to school. Mih’s only pair of shoe was a pair of rubber slippers that he carried by hand most of the time because the strap on the right shoe kept popping out, rendering it useless. He had tried mending the errant shoe but had not succeeded yet.
Lunch hour presented a serious challenge for Mih, because he never brought any food with him nor did he have money to buy the food that was sold at school. Hence during

Lunch hour, Mih walked around eying the food courts manned exclusively by women who sold a whole range of food: maize and beans; rice and beans; corn bread and beans; rice and meat stew; groundnuts and pop corn mix; etc. The cost of a reasonable meal without a drink was $0.25. This amount was too expensive for Mih to afford, so he was left negotiating to share a meal with other children. Some days it worked and others it did not. On the days it did not work, Mih just went hungry until he went home and hoped the sister had cooked something for the three of them.

Mih belongs to the group of African HIV/AIDS orphans who through no fault of theirs are caught in the web of abject poverty. Thus even though these orphans are part of the village community, they are constantly sidelined because they cannot afford school supplies, food or clothing. Charities do exist, that are dedicated to working towards the full integration of African AIDS orphans into their communities.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Ups and Downs of a HIV/AIDS Orphan

Mih at Home

The hand-dug gutter was blocked yet again, so Mih’s sister asked him to unblock it. He did. Just barely by removing the sludge and stuff that had obstructed the flow of the dirty, muddy water. Before the unblocking, it had been virtually impossible to go in and out of the hut where the family lived. And now, as he unblocked the clutter under the four feet plank that served as a bridge, the bridge was swept away by the torrents; luckily it was saved by the neighbor’s wooden bridge. Mih picked up their plank-bridge but decided he would repair it some other time. Not now. It was raining heavily and he had to go. Now or he would mess up his only pair of shorts.

The cold rain falling on his shaven head had increased his need to go to the toilet. Half running and walking fast not to attract attention to himself and covered by his banana leaf umbrella, he went around the house to the toilet, a pit latrine that had been dug by his grandfather for the inhabitants of the entire compound. He barely reached the open pit toilet before he let go. He hurried back into the hut and collapsed into the grass mattress that was covered with a torn piece of cloth serving as a bed sheet and propped up by stones and soil to reduce the number of crawling insects that sought to share the bed with him. He tried adjusting his head to get a comfortable position but gave up because the log that formed the foundation of his pillow had splintered and an annoying piece was poking his ear. And then there were those pesky bedbugs. He occasionally swiped them away as they tore though his flesh even as daylight peered through. Were these things not supposed to vanish as daylight showed up? Then Mih remembered that his bed was in the darker corner of the hut. The light from the small window did not reach his corner so the bedbugs had an around the clock feast-fest. Mih was convinced that these bedbugs contributed to and exacerbated his illness.

As Mih laid fighting the bedbugs and keeping an ear open for his sister’s inevitable call to clear the blockage once again or repair the plank-bridge, he started to think about his life. Just having turned 8, Mih was the third of his father’s five children. He lived with his elder sister Nsen and a brother. The other brothers had died a year ago from diarrhea, not unlike what he was currently suffering from. His sister was twelve years old and the surviving brother, Attia was 10. They lived in one hut which was part of the six huts that made up the compound of their uncle, Pa Joe. Nsen, was now his father and mother and fell into the category of child-headed households.

He was one of the growing numbers of orphans who are stretching the social cohesion of the village to the brink. The traditional African solidarity with the sick and suffering has taken a beating: many village family relatives can no longer handle the large influx of relatives that are flocking the village from the cities. Most of the returning families are made of heads of families who are too sick and want to die in their ancestral villages. These are the considerate ones. Others just die in the cities and their friends and relatives are forced to make the funeral arrangements which generally include sending the body to the village, along with their children, the AIDS orphans.

Next installment: Mih and school