Families living in the shadow of Aids

Martin Downs could have settled for a comfortable life. Instead, he is battling to make a difference to children's lives in a corner of Africa where two out of every three people is HIV-positive. His charity, Project O, supports 65 orphans. But a year on, there are more orphans than ever - and Project O needs, in South Africa's Zulu Valley Of A Thousand Hills.

Wednesday, 3rd October 2007, 12:15 pm
Updated Wednesday, 3rd October 2007, 12:15 pm

A RAMSHACKLE pile of rusting, corrugated sheeting is all it is.

You wouldn't even let it stand on your allotment. But it's what a family of four call their home.

The 42-year-old mother – who looks so gnarled and careworn she could pass for grandmother – is outside, waiting for her children and her nephew to come home.

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They are out playing, somewhere in the red dirt hills. She keeps a fire going in her "kitchen" - it's just another hulk of tin sheeting formed into a makeshift oven.

She wishes the boys would come. Unless they do, we can't leave her with the food we have brought.

Once a month, Project O's charity workers drive through the valley of Thousand Hills to reach the busy crossroads where her house lies.

They take a month's supply of rice, maize and potatoes and a carrier bag of vegetables, fruit, cheap meat.

I know exactly what is in the bag because I went to the supermarket in Cambridge to buy it this morning. In that ultra cheap store, where departing shoppers are searched like criminals, ours were the white black faces.

They must have wondered what we were doing there.

"They'll think you're SO poor," Thandy, one of Project O's Zulu workers, had chuckled as she showed us what to buy.

The mother worriedly pacing the wire fence that marks her little patch of scrub land rarely sees white faces, either. She knows we must be English though. A white South African wouldn't venture into these hills. And if they did, they would drive straight past her tin hut, unaware that four children sleep, live and eat just feet from their exhaust fumes.

One of the boys is her sister's son. She died a couple of years ago and it is he who Project O sponsor. As well as the monthly food parcel, the charity bought him a uniform and pays for his school fees.

"Why did your sister die?" I ask.

"She got sick," says the woman. It's the answer everyone who has lost a relative gives to me. Aids is a disease they are either ignorant of, or don't care to recognise.

If they do know that there is one virus, striking them down with a vast range of symptoms, many don't understand how easily it can be transmitted.

The woman looking into the distance for her boys starts to moan: "I'm sick too."She shows me her swollen ankles; the skin is greying and changing texture. Open lesions have gouged the flesh raw.

The boys don't arrive and we have to depart with the food. Project O's rules say the orphan has to be present (it's also a way of checking the child's welfare). We don't know if she has anything to cook on her fire that night.

But we return the following afternoon and all the boys are there. Aged ten to 17, they are clean-clothed and polite.

The mother ushers us all inside the tin shack; probably no white person has ever been in here before.

The 10-feet-square room is crammed with plastic containers for food, old oil drums and crates serving as tables and two ancient armchairs salvaged from a tip. We sit in recognition of her hospitality.

This visit is a combination of social welfare and reinforcement of faith. Religion is the only thing that gives many of the people in Thousand Hills any hope for the future. The boys listen respectfully as a Project O worker reads them a Bible story and talks to them about the importance of forgiveness.

Afterwards, the eldest boy tells me he's determined to work hard at school because he wants to become a social worker. It strikes me that, if we had gone into a hard-up home in South Yorkshire, we would never have met with such respect or ambition.

And these are the children many South Africans believe will be robbers and muggers in a few years' time.

The mother is listening to the lesson, too. She sits behind a curtain on the one single bed. She shares it with the youngest boys.

I think about the weeping sores on her legs. If they are caused by Aids (highly likely - statistics indicate two out of every three people you see in this valley are infected) the boys could easily contract the virus from her.

If she is clear and they are not, then how long will it be before she catches it from them?

Here in the hills, it seems everything is passed down, second-hand. From the junk their homes are made of to the disease that is killing them in their thousands.