By Mbatjiua Ngavirue
The growing problem of orphans and vulnerable children is a quiet catastrophe overtaking Namibia unseen, unheard and with little impact on the wider population of the country.
The most up-to-date statistics on orphans are from the Government’s 2001 Census, which estimated 156 000 orphans between infancy and 19 years of age in the country.
The absence of more recent statistics is in itself shocking, and six years on, no one seems to know whether the figure has remained steady, fallen, doubled, tripled or quadrupled.
Travelling through the country, one encounters heartrending scenes of child or youth-headed households, where either one or both parents have died or there is no means of tracing the surviving parent.
In these households, people as young as 14 or 25 shoulder the burden of having to raise anything from three, four, five or even seven siblings.
The ages between 14 and 25 should be carefree years for young people, when they worry about nothing more serious than their own schooling.
Instead, their faces are weary beyond their years from the daily struggle of scratching around for food for their younger brothers and sisters.
At the same time, they are engaged in a constant war with school authorities over payment to the School Development Fund for themselves and their siblings
Others face the additional battle of fighting off municipal authorities trying to repossess the house of their late parents over non-payment of municipal dues.
Child-headed households are the most tragic consequence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic sweeping the country, but the problem has many facets to it.
More common are the problems of households headed by an elderly grandparent forced to become caregiver to grandchildren due to the death of his or her own child.
Then there are those children simply abandoned to fend for themselves as best they can in the street – often leading to a life of drug abuse and criminal activity.
These problems are all aggravated among the San community by extreme poverty and other social ills such as alcohol abuse.
The Government of Namibia to its credit was quick to recognise the growing scourge of orphaned and destitute children.
It put in place a number emergency measures to deal with the crisis, including social and maintenance grants, as well as foster care programmes for orphaned and vulnerable children.
The sad reality encountered by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social and Community Development is that virtually none of these programmes function in the way they should.
People in desperate need are unable to access the grants through a combination of bureaucratic red tape, inertia, ignorance among officials and sheer incompetence in some cases.
The parliamentarians found a tragic but increasingly common example of the problem at the Five Rand Camp just outside Okahandja.
Since their mother passed away in May 2006, 14-year-old Grade 5 learner Olivia Andreas plays the role of both mother and father to five younger siblings.
They live alone and unsupervised in the two-room zinc shack left by their late mother.
How they have managed to sustain themselves for over a year is a mystery.
They have the death certificate of their mother to prove their orphan status, and most also seem to have birth certificates.
The Government does not provide social or maintenance grants for any of the six children, even though they are all eligible within the set criteria.
Even though she is for all practical purposes head of the household, 14-year-old Olivia is still legally a minor and therefore not eligible for a Namibian identity document.
Furthermore, because she is a minor the Government cannot pay grants directly to Olivia because that would apparently violate a provision of the Labour Act.
Local social workers were also slow to get their act together. They wasted precious time trying to contact an uncle in the north to act as guardian for the children.
Meanwhile, they have an uncle locally in Five Rand, who lacks a steady job but assists them whenever he can with food.
It is difficult to understand why the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare has not appointed the locally available uncle as caregiver – a bird in the hand is after all worth two in the bush.
Fortunately for the children, an American NGO based in Arandis assists them with payment of school fees.
The younger children also receive food at local NGO Ileni Tulikwafeni’s soup kitchen, but Olivia now growing into a mature teenager shuns the centre – perhaps because of the stigma attached to being dependent on charity.
The real tragedy is that there are maybe many thousands undocumented child-headed households around the country, that receive no assistance and that officials are not even aware of.
In Grootfontein, the committee encountered a variation of the same problem – this time not a child-headed household but one headed by a youth.
A 25-year-old young woman assisted by her 23-year-old brother heads this household, looking after six other siblings.
Before their father passed away he impregnated a Zimbabwean woman, but the mother later came to dump the baby at the house of the father and fled back to her own country.
The parents originally came from Rundu, but they have battled to survive as best they can since their parents passed away in 2004.
As if grappling with the threat of feeding themselves is not difficult enough, they face constant threats of eviction from their late parents’ home for non-payment, by the Grootfontein municipality.
Just after the parliamentary delegation arrived, the young woman returned from the veld after collecting what she said was wild spinach to feed her brothers and sisters.
Most of the parliamentarians however seemed to be of the opinion that what she collected was an edible weed, not spinach.