Swiss development aid has been helping a South African organisation step up its activities for schoolchildren living with HIV/Aids.
This project will soon be extended to five other southern African countries – the region worst hit worldwide by the HIV/Aids pandemic.
As you climb towards Nongoma away from the KwaZulu-Natal coast, lush green hills give way to dry savannah. Far from the coastal holiday resorts and industrial cities, this large market town looks just like any other.
The surrounding countryside has a desolate look about it. Local villages, without any roads, electricity or running water, are just a collection of huts or houses scattered on fallow land or sugarcane fields.
"The people here really know what poverty is. Many of them go to bed without a meal," explained Z.S. Gazu, governor at the village school in Mandlezulu.
In the morning some schoolchildren
have to walk 20 kilometres to school on an empty stomach. However, since the beginning of the year they have been served breakfast at school.
Education and prevention
This is just part of the work carried out by the Media in Education and Training Project (MiET), a South African non-governmental organisation (NGO), which is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).
Since the end of the apartheid era MiET has produced educational materials focusing on healthcare, the environment and democracy.
But more recently, encouraged by
the SDC, the NGO has become involved in HIV/Aids prevention work.
The organisation has worked in Mandlezulu since 2002, helping the village school become a focal point and support centre for a network of eight local schools.
The ten computers with internet connection, photocopier, fax machine and library, to which the whole village has access, might not seem much, but to the people of Mandlezulu, it is a major contribution.
In each of the schools that belong to the network, HIV positive children can count on the support of a "nanny". Bona is Mandlezulu's carer and no one doubts her words
when you hear her say, "I love children too much".
Her job is to listen to her pupils, comfort them, give them a cuddle and to remind them to take their daily medication. Students at the MiET schools receive antiretroviral treatment, which is rare in South Africa.
As for schoolteachers, they have learnt to deal with tricky situations. "In the past teachers punished students who arrived late or slept in class. But now they are able to understand the dramatic situations responsible for students' reactions," said Gazu.
The network's social worker can try
to resolve such dramas by visiting a student's family. But this is not always easy if she is a young woman confronting a father who abuses his daughter. But sometimes they manage and the father ends up in prison.
The four modest school buildings that house the 700 pupils and 15 teachers are bursting with excitement today ahead of the arrival of Lynn van der Elst, officer in charge of the MiET HIV/Aids project and her Swiss visitor.
The meeting begins with a prayer. A plump woman then stands up and, on behalf of the school board of governors, begins to chant her welcome speech, which quickly turns into a gospel song, accompanied by the whole school.
"When we feel emotional it's hard to stop us singing," says Moussa, the local MiET coordinator, smiling. Fifteen young girls with short hair then show off their Zulu dancing skills.
"Everyone here knows how to do it, you don't have to learn it at school," says Moussa.
Van der Elst suddenly reminds us that, amid all this merriment, we should not forget individual tragedies.
As a former teacher she knows only too well that one out of every three children is abused.
"Unfortunately, violence is part of
the culture here. Men who have been terribly humiliated by apartheid violence take it out whatever way they can," explains van der Elst.
According to SDC information, a school is often the "strongest and most stable institution" in a region, which is another reason to support programmes such as the one in Mandlezulu.
swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez in Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal
The SDC contributes SFr600,000 ($499,000) from its annual southern Africa aid budget of SFr9 million to MiET programmes.
The money is given to schools to become support centres for children who are HIV positive or orphans as a result of HIV/Aids and to promote healthy living.
Switzerland is helping to expand the project to the neighbouring Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Swaziland.
The programme features among SDC's overall goals and one of its cooperation strategies is to improve access to education and healthcare for the most disadvantaged groups.
5.3 million South Africans have HIV out of a population of 45 million (2003 figures).
The average life expectancy has dropped from 53 to 47 years between 1970 and 2004, mainly due to HIV/Aids.
Officially 90 per cent of children go to primary school, which is free in the poorest regions.
But NGOs are sceptical about this figure, saying that many children have to look after their sick parents.