By Ufrieda Ho, Spotlight
Even for a woman of faith, breaking bad news is never an easy thing to do.
When Sister Krystyna Ciarcińska called a meeting for the 30 caregivers of the
Koinoina Orphans Project in rural Umzimkhulu, KwaZulu-Natal at the end of winter this year, she did so with a heavy heart.
“I was so sad and I didn’t know what I was going to say to them,” she says, remembering that day. In her hand was the letter from the South African Catholics Bishops Conferences (SACBC) notifying the Lourdes Mission, where Sr Krystyna is a consecrated sister of the Koinonia John the Baptist community, that funding for the two-year-old Koinonia Orphans Project she headed up, would run out by the end of September.
“Sometimes when we call special meetings it’s because we have been given unexpected donations of blankets, mattresses or something, so the caregivers were very excited. But instead I had bad news to tell them; it was terrible,” she says.
That official funding has dried up and it has been a blow. But the Lourdes Mission has fought to continue with the project even though for the past few months paying the R35 000 a month bill it costs to run the project has never been a certainty
“Prayers and providence,” says the irrepressible Sr Krystyna with a smile, at how donations have materialised. Still, she’s only too aware that the long-term sustainability of the project is in jeopardy.
The Koinonia Orphans Project has over the last two years become a vital lifeline for over 900 children registered in the project and their families from the 13 villages that surround the mission station. The 30 caregivers who receive a stipend for their service also rely heavily on this source of income.
The project that started in October 2015 focuses on supporting children in vulnerable households, many are AIDS orphans. It’s part of the Catholic Church’s response to HIV/ Aids that was officially started in the country in 2000.
Withdrawal of PEPFAR funds
The SACBC has been a beneficiary of the United States’ Pepfar (President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) funding since the fund came into being officially in 2004. The shift in foreign policy under the Trump administration has however, sparked concern for critical long-term financial support from Pepfar.
According to Mrudula Smithson, director of the SACBC AIDS Office, Pepfar funding to the SACBC has been reduced by around half for the next financial year. While Smithson says they don’t disclose the actual amounts, she says their projects have been hit badly.
“We receive three streams of Pepfar funding for our projects that all focus on
orphaned and vulnerable children – all three have been severely affected while our target of the number of children we want to reach has increased significantly,” she says.
Smithson adds that the SACBC Aids Office programmes currently reaches 45 000 children. “We are very concerned that the small projects around the country especially now have to find their own way to fund their programmes or they’ll have to shut them down,” she says.
At this point, Pepfar will continue to fund projects in South Africa till September next year. In May, the US Embassy in Pretoria announced that Pepfar would support South Africa’s HIV/AIDS and TB programmes till September next year and would support the National Strategic Plan (NSP)’s 2017-2022 programmes for HIV, TB and Sexually Transmitted Infections. An additional U$51-million in funding was approved to support South Africa’s voluntary male medical circumcision programme. Since 2004, Pepfar has invested over U$5.6-billion in South Africa.
A million realities away from decisions made in boardrooms in capital cities, Koinonia Orphans Project caregivers must still get on with visiting families under their care.
With basic training in nutrition, hygiene and counselling, caregivers help make sure people adhere to their medicine regimes and have food to eat, often they share from their own meagre provisions. They cook and clean, fix homesteads, and help plant food gardens. They also help register children for birth certificates and identity documents. They do school monitoring, help with homework and ensure that children have school uniforms, without which they’re not allowed to attend school.
Another prong of the Koinonia Orphans Project has been twice yearly voluntary HIV/AIDS testing and counselling days targeted at children but also reaching adults who live in communities surrounding the Lourdes Mission.
In their last testing campaign held in August they were able to test 400 people, working in collaboration with local clinics that provided the pin-prick test kits.
“Knowing their status early is important so that they can start treatment early,” says Gloria Tsezi, one of the Koinonia caregivers in the village of Moyeni.
Tsezi visit homes where the burdens facing families is heavy. At the home of Busisiwe Khambula and her three children, Tsezi looks on as Khambula cradles in her lap the head of her eldest of three children, Olwethu (18). He is severely disabled and often suffers from uncontrollable fits.
“Sometimes the clinic tells me there are no medicines for his fits, then I have to go to Rietvlei Hospital. Sometimes I just lie him down flat and wait till the fit is finished – it hurts my heart too much,” Khambula says. Transport to get to the hospital costs her R200.
Tsezi and Khambula also tell of Khambula’s allegedly abusive relationship with the mostly absent father of her children. Abuse is another load that women in this remote district of KZN must carry.
Tsezi says: “He threw away all her pots and burnt all the children’s documents so I had to help get new identity documents for the children.
“I come to look after Olwethu and the two smaller children, Jabulile and Simthanda, when Busisiwe must go out. I give Olwethu soft porridge and milk, it’s the only thing he can eat – he likes it,” she says, proudly wearing the sky-blue Koinonia golf shirts that have become the uniform of the projects’ caregivers.
A difficult life
A few villages away in Riverside, a mother tells of her trials of living with HIV and the devastation of some years ago when she found out that one of her children, an 11-year-old girl, is also HIV positive. The child has also suffered from TB, she says.
They have a vegetable garden but sometimes there isn’t enough food for a square meal – essential for those taking ARVs. Riverside was also without water for nine months this year.
In another village Tryphina Mkalane is grieving for her daughter who died just months ago. It’s added two more grandchildren under her care, bringing to five the number of young ones who live in her rondavel.
One of the children turns 18 soon. Mkalane worries she will not find a paying job. At the same time it will mean she’ll lose a social grant that goes towards paying for groceries, transport and school supplies.
“One of my other daughters is in Durban. She’s been trying to find a job for over a year now. We send her the grant money so she can pay rent in Durban,” says Mkalane, speaking through her caregiver, Lucinda Dlamini.
For Sr Krystyna, who grew up in Poland and arrived in South Africa from Spain first in 2013 then permanently since April 2014, helping to lighten people’s challenges bought on by the collision of multiple miseries has become part of her life’s work.
Every sad story breaks her heart, but not her faith. Her childhood fascination with Africa has turned into the place she now calls home. In return the community has embraced her as their own, there are even little girls bearing her name – spelt the Polish way – the mothers and the nun say with a laugh.
It was in 2010 that the arduous process of rebuilding the Lourdes Mission and their cathedral first started under invitation by the local bishop to Father Michal Wojciechowski, who now heads the Koinonia John the Baptist community in Lourdes.
The mission station and cathedral date back to 1895. They were built by Trappist monks but had been given over to neglect and abandon for decades. Brick by brick the community has worked to rebuild the twin-towered cathedral and the living quarters for the handful of nuns and brothers who keep the mission alive.
There’s still a mountain of work to be done, like restoring a burnt out convent and an adjoining boarding school.
Every day there are new needs that present at the Lourdes Mission’s doors. The sisters, brothers and Father Michal open their arms to it all: a woman and her children who have gone three days without a meal; the shattering news of a teenage suicide; someone needing help with homework or just seeking out comfort and a prayer – and of course, the on-going question of how to fund the Koinonia Orphans Project for the the long-term.
But the cathedral is a beacon of joy and spiritual light. It’s packed to capacity for Mass each Sunday, the mission’s food garden and orchards now thrive as a symbol of new hope. Funding is sorely needed here; faith in action though, grows with abundance.
BURDEN OF THE GENERATIONS
When the rain sweeps in over the hills of Umzimkhulu and the winds follow, the rolling hills turn to mud and muck. Mist and chill wrap around rondavels with little forgiveness.
Gogo Alexsia Njilo (95) calls this remote part of southern KwaZulu-Natal
home. On a soggy, cold afternoon, the nonagenarian tends a steel teapot warmed on burning firewood in the centre of her rondavel. In-between she shoos away chickens pecking on the dung-mud floor, also seeking the mercy of warmth. Njilo lives with two teenage grandsons here that she mumbles are no good and no help to her. They come and go as they please, she says.
“I won’t cook tonight because they will just eat all my food,” she says in Zulu, I will drink tea for my dinner, she says.
So much adds to Njilo’s hardships: maladies of old age; few opportunities or hope for young people in this remote village and little infrastructure and resources to make life easier for a family living in poverty in the Harry Gwala district. The district has been in the news of late for political killings, cases of corruption and municipal mismanagement, also lack of infrastructure and pressing needs for basic services.
Njilo’s is one of the vulnerable households under the care of the Koinonia Orphans Project, run by the small community of consecrated sisters and brothers from the Catholic Church’s Koinonia John the Baptist community, based at the Lourdes Mission in a neighbouring village.
The 95-year-old’s Koinonia caregiver is the newest and youngest in the project: 19-year-old Thembile Dzanibe, who joined them in the middle of November.
Dzanibe finished her matric in 2016 and had been looking for work ever since.
“Many young people are in the same situation as me. Here in the rural areas there are no jobs or opportunities, nobody has work, they just have to sit at home. I applied for bursaries to study but I wasn’t accepted,” she says.
Added to this she says there’s a growing drug problem and a deep-rooted crisis of alcohol abuse that often leads to violence and criminality. Teenage pregnancy is also common and HIV/AIDS continue to ravage the community.
As a born-free, Dzanibe had hopes of studying to become a teacher. She says: “Actually my dream is to open a crèche, I love children.”
But both dreams have stalled.
“I’m happy to be a caregiver this year, I think I will be able to look after Gogo and the two boys, even though I don’t know if they’ll listen to me,” she says, sitting inside Njilo’s hut.
Gogo’s face does light up to greet her young caregiver but she’s also lost to tiredness and her own thoughts.
For Bertha Mia, the co-ordinator of the Koinonia caregivers, the role that Dzanibe has committed to is a big one.
“You need patience to do this job; you also need to treat every person with dignity. You have to work hard and be honest,” says Mia.
Dzanibe nods as Mia passes on this advice.
Community caregivers take on an intimate, sometimes almost impossible task. They’re a pillar that props up the most vulnerable in society, yet as in the case of the Koinonia Orphans Project they’re also first to fall when funding dries up.