A lot of the controversy about Madonna’s adoption of a matched set of black babies involves the problem of HIV orphans in Africa.

Should we condemn a woman, even if she is a narcissistic diva, for trying to rescue a child from such poverty?

A few days ago, I wrote about my experience in adopting from South America.

But in South America and also to where I live in the rural Philippines, we have pockets of poverty. In Africa, they have pockets of destitution.

It’s been 20 plus years since I worked in Africa, so my information is probably out of date. I’m sure things are now much better, despite the economic declines and HIV epidemic that in 2005 in Zimbabwe alone will take the parent of 160 000 children.

When I was in Africa, we did not have orphanages for older children. Most of the babies were placed because mom died, either in childbirth or before the child was weaned. Without breast milk, formula was not an option: Very expensive, and mixed with water that often contained the germs that cause diarrhea, which kills infants.

The orphanage that was left was a dull place. The one at a nearby mission had 20 cribs, two wet nurses (who nursed the smallest children) and several nurses aides and nursing assistants to care for the children. But it was a terribly poor place, despite the love and physical care given to the children.

Luckily, as soon as the children were weaned–in Africa, because of price of protein rich foods, this is usually aged three or four–the nuns would start searching for families to take them home, and usually one day someone would show up and take the child home.

The difference now is that a large numbers of children have lost one or both parents to HIV.(HIV in Africa is a sexually transmitted disease, but also spread through unsterilized knives and needles used by traditional healers, and, alas, though breast feeding.)
So what happens to these children? Again, most are taken in by the extended family.  In Zimbabwe, I have heard of grandmothers raising eight or more children on a small sum of money, often send home by family members working outside the country.

The second best answer is foster care, or a group home with a mother in charge of several children. Many churches fund local women to do this at a local level, and some governments are trying their best to organize such homes.

The third answer is an orphanage.

Alas, older children are often “on their own”, or only minimally cared for by informal caregivers.

THIS VOA report discusses a UN report on child abuse of such street children.  Child abuse and particularly sexual predation is on the rise in Zimbabwe, driven by the country’s large and growing population of children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic, according to the United Nations Childrens Fund and local child advocacy groups.

HIV has led some people to resort not only to traditional herbs and ceremonies, but to what is rightly called “witchcraft”, i.e. doing an evil deed to try to manipulate the spirit to cure you. Alas, one “traditional treatment” for HIV involves the raping of a virgin. An orphan, without parents or kin to protect them, are the ones most easily abused in this manner.

Local NGO’s are working with the government to educate both traditional healers and locals about this myth. They are staging plays that tell the stories from the girl’s point of view, and emphasizing that there is no “cure” for HIV, but that there is treatment available.

But not everything is a horror story. The BBC has this story of one orphan raised by a stranger and who was later place in a foster home. She is going to school, and is still hopeful for a “normal” life.

Sometimes when I get letters about the problems with Africa, I wish my health and my husband’s health would allow me to return there to help. Friends who have returned there, and local nuns and nurses who write to me, are simply grateful for the little help I can send.So how do we help?

Most churches and mosques have charities that send money to locals who are helping orphans. Oxfam and CARE and UNICEF are other good places to start. And many of the tear jerking “adopt a foster child” types help keep children with intact families by paying school fees and other expenses.

If you want information about adoption and the various information about adoption, Adoptive Families website is a good place to start.
When Mother Teresa first went out to work among the refugees and homeless after the partition of India, she saw a man, and she helped him. You cannot save the world, but you can help one child.
Hmm… this sounds like what Madonna is trying to do. Maybe I was wrong in criticizing her.
Nancy Reyes is a retired physician who lives in the Philippines with her husband, seven dogs, three cats, and a huge extended family.
Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket. She sometimes posts about Africa on her MugabeMakaipa Blog.

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