by Oakland Ross
Nceka, Swaziland -- Mfan'fikile Dlamini is starting over.
At the ripe old age of 16, the orphaned former herdboy and former abused child is going to school for the first time in his life.
He says he is happy, too - and that's probably another first.
"Yes, I am," he says in his native Swati, a southern African click language closely related to Zulu. His head bobs nervously as he speaks and he fidgets with the pages of a Grade 1 workbook. "I am now able to read."
The newly literate youth is hunched in the cool shade of a rural schoolyard, flanked by several of his much smaller classmates, all of whom are about a decade younger than their lanky new friend, a disparity that no one seems to mind. They all have illustrated workbooks balanced on their laps and are practising their morning lessons.
You can readily imagine how difficult it must have been for Mfan'fikile to summon the courage to come to school for the first time, starting back at the beginning, surrounded by children less than half his age.
But that is what he has done.
"He had been looking after cattle for all these years," says Maria Sikhondze, headmistress at the Sinceni Mission Primary School. "He was afraid of coming to school, because of the age difference."
The age difference is just one of the many hurdles that Mfan'fikile has had to overcome in his short life. But here he is, very much alive, with a schoolbook in hand, friends at his sides and a view that stretches out over the eastern low veldt of the kingdom of Swaziland, a vista composed of a parched expanse of communal grazing lands decorated with acacia trees and bordered to the west by the proud Hhohlo hills. It's a handsome prospect in many ways, or it would be, were it not for one thing.
The kingdom of Swaziland is increasingly a kingdom of death.
This little monarchy of 1 million souls, bordered by South Africa and Mozambique and ruled by His Highness King Mswati III, holds the dismal honour of having the world's highest infection rate of HIV, a complex and so far intractable malady that many people here are reluctant to talk about, even as it stalks them down and lays them low, like so many antelope on the run.
Currently, nearly 43 per cent of adult Swazis are HIV-positive or have AIDS, a disease that killed 20,000 people here last year, will kill another 20,000 this year and a similar number next year, and so on, into a dimly perceived future
The outlook is not much better in many other parts of Africa.
There are those who worry that this kingdom, like several other southern African lands - Lesotho, Malawi, perhaps Zambia - is in danger of complete collapse. Its adult population gutted by AIDS, the long-time home of the Swazis may eventually cease to exist as an independent nation.
And yet, if Mfan'fikile can survive all that he has so far endured - and not lose hope and still be willing to start again from scratch - then you must believe that Africa can do the same.
But the task will not be easy, for the hour is late and the outside world has been unconscionably slow in coming to the aid of this country and this continent.
The world's next chance early next month, when the leaders of the G-8 nations - Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States - grapple with Africa's AIDS crisis as one of the cornerstones of their summit meeting in Scotland.
"On the ground, when you travel, it is still despairing and overwhelming," says Stephen Lewis, the Canadian who serves as the United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. "I've come to the point where the saving of one human life is what's it all about."
Mfan'fikile Dlamini is one human life.
An apparently guileless youth, with a handsome oval face and dark, liquid eyes, he wears a white polo shirt, black track pants and running shoes - clothing given him by an international aid agency. Like many other students here, he cannot afford the green-and-gold uniform of the Sinceni school.
Anything that costs money, Mfan'fikile cannot afford. Not many people around here can.
The numbers don't do justice to the reality, but here are the numbers. Fully 70 per cent of Swaziland's people subsist on the equivalent of $1 a day, many of them on a lot less.
"Their annual income is barely enough to buy a coffin if they die," says Abdoulaye Balde, the country director for the World Food Program, which is desperately trying to provide emergency food to 250,000 hungry Swazis, a quarter of the total population. "It's nothing."
Balde is speaking of the country as a whole, but the kingdom's eastern lowlands are impoverished even by Swazi standards. What's worse, this year the region suffered its fifth straight season of meagre rainfall. Even without the predations of AIDS, times would be tough.
As it is, they are harrowing.
"Parents, left and right, have died," says Sikhondze, an imposing, matriarchal woman of 57, clad in a round-brimmed blue hat, long black jacket and blue dress.
She hobbles about the sloping grounds of her school like an angel in mourning.
"Some students are staying alone in their homes. Families are headed by these kids."
These kids are the offspring of AIDS.
You cannot always see it, but the disease is everywhere in this land. It's on people's minds. It's interred in the ground. It lurks in the blood.
It shows up constantly in the pages of the kingdom's two newspapers, The Times and The Observer, whose classified columns brim daily with dozens of death notices - picture after picture of mostly young adults who have slipped away, long before their time, the cause of their passing never mentioned in print.
HIV pervades much of sub-Saharan Africa, but it's sometimes strangely difficult to detect, perhaps nowhere more so than in this small kingdom, ruled by a hereditary monarch with 10 wives, a royal palace and a personal jet.
The two main Swazi cities - towns, really - are the capital Mbabane and Manzini, about 25 kilometres to its southeast. Both are busy little centres, infused with an air of purpose and bustle. They are connected by a four-lane, illuminated highway that puts the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway to shame.
The mountain scenery is stunning. You cannot see the dead.
But here in this dry, rocky savannah land, anyone can perceive at a glance what death has wrought. It has wrought emptiness - a near absence of adults - and it has wrought orphans.
"We estimate 70,000 orphans now," says Derek von Wissell, a white-skinned Swazi who is in charge of the National Emergency Response Council for HIV/AIDS, a government-controlled agency.
"This will grow to 120,000 orphans by 2010."
That's about 12 per cent of the population - or one person in eight.
No one really knows what to do about this tide of parentless children. An American evangelical pastor by the name of Bruce Wilkinson has offered to take over a couple of the kingdom's wildlife reserves to build huge orphanages that would be financed by the operation of tourist theme parks - Disneyland meets the Apocalypse.
But few here seem receptive to the idea.
Right now, both the Swazi government and international agencies such as UNICEF are determined to address the country's swelling ranks of orphans by keeping the children close to their communities.
Authorities have set up more than 400 posts around the country - known as neighbourhood care points, or NCPs - where orphaned, abandoned or hungry children may come for food or other kinds of support.
The World Food Program and various partner agencies distribute the food, while local adults - those who remain - act as unpaid caregivers, feeding and tending to the hapless youngsters for six hours each day.
The caretakers are a hardy but put-upon breed.
Thuli Dlamini, for example, is standing in the sparse shade of an umkhuhlu tree at a village called Dziya, not far from the Sinceni school. She is tending a wood fire and three steaming cast-iron pots, in which she is preparing a hot lunch for 44 young children, all of whom are being cared for at the local NCP.
The meal will consist of bean stew and a corn porridge known here as papa, the country's staple food.
(A great many Swazis, including the king, bear the surname Dlamini. Generally, they are not related to one another or only distantly.)
Forty-two years old and with six children of her own, Thuli has also taken in five nieces and nephews, who became orphans when her brother and his wife died not long ago - she won't say of what. She is expecting to receive six more children soon, from an ailing sister.
Her own husband works as a labourer in the sugarcane fields near a town called Big Bend, coming home only on weekends. He is unwell, too. Thuli says it's high blood pressure, and maybe she is right.
A few steps from Thuli's cooking fire, the children of the Dziya NCP are learning the rudiments of English from another caregiver, Nonhianhia Shabangu. "We are standing up!" they cry, bouncing on their small feet. "We are standing up!"
A Norman Rockwell canvas, it is not. But at least these children have food to eat and, for the most part, they appear healthy. As matters stand, however, only about 30,000 Swazi children have access to an NCP, leaving at least 40,000 orphans and tens of thousands of other vulnerable children without outside help.
"We have at least 150,000 kids who are not getting the most basic support they require," says Alan Brody, head of the UNICEF office in Mbabane.
"They are invisible."
They are also open to sometimes-shocking abuse.
"Older men are basically preying on younger girls," says Anurita Bains, who works with AIDS envoy Lewis.
It's called "survival sex" and it is the only way many children can find to put another day between themselves and the grave, trading their bodies for some food, a few coins, anything to get by.
Often, the children receive an unmentioned dividend in the bargain, a deadly dose of HIV.
The sexual exploitation of vulnerable children is not merely a loathsome footnote to the story of AIDS in many parts of Africa, it is also an increasingly powerful vector for the spread of the disease from one generation to the next.
"This is the fire that is burning," says Brody at UNICEF. "It is a big problem."
Unfortunately, it gets worse. In Swaziland, as elsewhere in southern Africa, some adult males believe they can rid themselves of AIDS by sleeping with a virgin. Vile as it may be, the superstition persists - with horrific consequences.
"I don't have another good explanation for why we have men raping very, very young girls," says Brody.
For orphans in Swaziland, the misery of sexual abuse is compounded by another grim fact of life in the time of AIDS. There is generally nowhere for them to go for comfort or counsel, because the favourite aunts or uncles of happier days are now likely to be dead.
In Swaziland, authorities are trying to compensate for this breakdown in traditional kinship structures with a program called Lihlombe Lekukhalela, Swati for "A Shoulder to Cry On." The goal of the campaign is to seek out responsible, caring adults and identify them as people to whom troubled children may go for advice, solace, a heartfelt embrace - commodities that are all in short, but desperately needed, supply.
Amid this onslaught of woe, experts here are at last starting to glean the hazy and still-tentative signs that something may finally be changing for the good in the kingdom of death. Among Swazis ages 15 to 19, the HIV prevalence rate eased downward last year to 28 per cent from 34 per cent in 2002.
"It could be a glitch in the figures," says von Wissell. "Or maybe there's something happening in this group."
Either they are using condoms or they are abstaining from sex or they are limiting their sexual partners - or all three.
If the figures are accurate, this is the first heartening news in a long, dark time.
As matters stand, more than 200,000 Swazis, or nearly one-quarter of the total population, are reckoned to be HIV-positive. Of these, about 25,000 are sufficiently ill to require anti-retroviral medication - drugs capable of keeping people with AIDS alive and mostly healthy. ARVs are provided free here, but distribution is a problem.
Only about 10,000 Swazis are receiving the drugs, between one-half and one-third of those who need them. Still, this is a far better rate than Swaziland's much larger and wealthier neighbour, South Africa, has achieved.
In fact, some here believe that this little kingdom, despite its many sorrows, could yet provide an example in the fight against AIDS in Africa.
True, the king receives a lot of bad press, thanks to his extravagant tastes in wives and imported consumer goods, but in fact the government here is openly committed to the fight against the disease and has committed considerable resources to the struggle.
"Make this an experiment," says Balde at the World Food Program. "I believe Swaziland is so small a country that, if you don't get it right here, let's not even think about it elsewhere."
Much has already been lost to AIDS in the kingdom of Swaziland and much more inevitably will be wrested away, including nearly all the economic and social gains achieved during 37 years of independence. Still, when the disease has finally done its worst - and no one knows when that will be - Swazis will have no choice but to start over again, from scratch, just like their counterparts in many other African lands.
Some of them already are.
Consider Mfan'fikile Dlamini, a boy denied schooling because his parents couldn't afford the fees. All his young life so far, he has tended cattle - at least until his mother and father died, cause of death unknown. Mfan'fikile was sent to live with an aunt, but she beat him so regularly and severely that finally he ran away.
That was last year, when teachers at the Sinceni school found the youngster wandering aimlessly through the nearby hills, dressed in rags. Since then, his life has been transformed.
A local resident has taken him in, he has decent clothing and now the 16-year-old is a student for the first time in his life, his fees paid by UNICEF.
It took a little help, but Mfan'fikile is starting over. If he can do it, maybe Africa can.