AIDS triggers wave of urban homeless

The disintegration of the extended Swazi family, partly as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, has created a new phenomenon of urban homelessness.

A bitter early-winter cold front awakened Swazis this week to a problem nonexistent a decade ago: a seemingly permanent population of homeless people in urban centres. Temperatures plunged to almost freezing point in the capital, Mbabane, and dipped below 0 degrees Celsius in the northern town, Pigg’s Peak and the southern town, Hlatikhulu.

Samuel Dlamini was driven onto the streets of the central commercial hub, Manzini, when family elders advised him to leave after his second wife died of an AIDS-related illness.

"There was nothing to do there [in the rural homestead]. The drought was such that the fields could not be cultivated, so I came to Manzini. I lived with other people in the cemetery before they put in a new gate [to deny access]. I slept on cardboard under a plastic sheet, now I sleep on the pavement under newspapers," said Dlamini.

Thandi Ngwenya, a social worker attached to the Baphalali Red Cross Society in Manzini said, "Dlamini is typical of the urban transients we see, who have been uprooted from the traditional life on the homestead. Homelessness was unheard of a generation ago, everyone had a home, and a purpose in life".

Dlamini said it was more productive to scrounge through dumpsters – he does not ask people for money – than sit idle on a dried-up farm. "[At least now]I don’t have to contend with my wife’s family’s hostility".

AIDS has worsened the problem of homelessness by decimating families. Nearly four out of 10 sexually active Swazi adults are HIV-positive, a scale of suffering that threatens to overwhelm the traditional support system of the extended family.

For many Swazis during this week of plunging temperatures, the sight of ragged people huddled around fires in alleys was a revelation. "These street people never bother us, only the children ask for money. I always assumed they had families, a place to go. But it seems they live outdoors all the time," said Alicia Simelane, an Mbabane bank teller.

Government’s position is that there are no homeless people in Swaziland, because in this traditional society, everyone has a family homestead, the place of their ancestors, to which they can return.

Complex problem

Social welfare workers said the reality was more complex, in a country that has suffered six succesive years of poor harvests, and where one-third of the one million population is expected to need food aid this season.

"The truth is that poverty has put too much pressure on the traditional family structure. The drought has wasted the fields of subsistence farmers in all regions of the country this year, and HIV/AIDS is another stress factor," said John Dube, a social science lecturer.

"Before independence [in 1968], most Swazis spent their entire lives within a 50km radius of the family homestead where they were born. Several generations of a polygamous household lived together.I don’t think today that a single traditional homestead like that can be found. The land has been divided and subdivided among children, and the rest have scattered," said Dube.

A Manzini shop owner told IRIN, "It seems strange that this is a quiet and traditional country, but now we have a homeless population like Johannesburg [South Africa's business hub]."

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