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The Story of a Congolese Family Orphaned by AIDS

by Mulegwa Zihindula

Sylvie Ngiaye, now 22, was only 16 years old when her father died from AIDS-related symptoms. Her mother, also infected with the virus at the time, was too weak to care for the family. Since there was no one else to care for her two younger brothers, and since the Democratic Republic of Congo has no social welfare system, Sylvie had to drop out of school to provide for her family. "It was too overwhelming for me. . . . I became pregnant by design to force my boyfriend to help take care of my family," said Sylvie.

One of the tragedies of AIDS is the trail of orphans the pandemic has left on the African continent. There are an estimated half a million AIDS orphans in Congo alone. As in Sylvie's case, many are forced at an early age to care for their families. Because of difficult economic conditions in the country, they often resort to prostitution, exposing themselves to AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases to support their families.

In African traditions, orphans are usually cared for by their relatives. AIDS orphans, however, are often discriminated against and sometimes victimized by their extended families. When Mrs. Ngiaye died a year after her husband's death, Sylvie, her brothers, and her baby became the subject of insults from their relatives. Although they did not test positive for HIV/AIDS, their uncles often forbade their children from socializing with either Sylvie or her brothers, claiming that they would contaminate them. "Our uncles were vicious. . . . Shortly after our mother died, they tried without our knowledge to sell our house while we were living in it," said Sylvie.

After Sylvie gave birth, her boyfriend left her. With an incomplete education, Sylvie could not find work in the country's poor job market. "Fortunately, someone told me that I could get help from AMO-Congo [an organization that cares mostly for orphans]," she says. The organization, run by Dr. Henri Mukumbi, a United Methodist, gave Sylvie a monthly ration of food to feed her family. The organization also provided job skills training to Sylvie. She is now a secretary at AJIS, an organization involved in educating youth about HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.

Both Sylvie and her brothers refuse to hold grudges for the ill treatment they received at the hands of their uncles after their mother's death. When discussing this issue, they often quote I Thessalonians 5:18: "In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." They say that God had a purpose for allowing those circumstances to happen in their lives at the time.

Although Sylvie would like to return to school to get her high school diploma, she is too busy caring for her family and working. She also spends time singing and speaking at church functions. "People who know little about AIDS orphans, often cry when they hear me speak," she says.

June 21, 2000