Tue, Nov 30, 2004 - Page 9 News List

AIDS-infected kids need more than physical care


Four-year-old Lerato is wriggling in anticipation. She can't wait to see what this colorful box is all about.

Welfare worker Samantha Stewart throws a dice and selects a card. "The people in my family are ... ," she begins. "Sick!" the boney child with cropped hair and a curious grin blurts out.

She is among one of the first young South Africans to see a demonstration of the "Magical Aids Journey," a board game designed to help children affected by HIV/AIDS come to terms with the impact of the disease on their lives.

Lerato is just one of over 5 million South African children who have been affected, infected, orphaned or abandoned by AIDS, and is the kind of child Johannesburg social worker Carin Marcus had in mind when she designed the game.

"Her mother died of AIDS, her father is presumed dead of AIDS and her aunt is dying of AIDS," according to the child's adopted mother Johanna Kistner who is also the director of the Ekopuleni children's outreach center east of the city.

In fact, Lerato is also infected with AIDS. Having just been released from hospital care after her health took a bad turn, she is visiting the offices of the Children's Homes Outreach Medical Program in Johannesburg.

"Children in South Africa very seldom reach formalized counselling," said Marcus, who is also the head of psychosocial services at Hospice, one of the country's main palliative care facilities.

There is a growing realization among people at the forefront of the fight against AIDS -- caregivers, social workers and teachers -- that children who have been affected by the pandemic need more than just shelter or food and clothing.

"Children need to talk about their feelings as opposed to these feelings just being absorbed into their everyday lives," says Marcus.

Vusi is studying the colorful hand-painted board, his eyes tracing the winding path through a lush forest that is marked by colored dots and lined with angels, animals and fantasy figures.

He hesitates when he is invited to answer the next question: "I wish that ..."

"I wish that my home would have enough money," he confesses shyly.

"The game is meant to be educational, supportive, therapeutic and resilience building," Marcus said, adding: "One cannot build a game around HIV/AIDS that does not build resilience."

One thousand copies of the game have been sponsored by a multinational auditing firm and school teachers, AIDS caregivers and social workers who have been taught how it works, have "been lapping it up," she said.

"Its giving them something practical to use. Its hard to sit opposite a child affected by AIDS and say `how are you feeling,'" Marcus said.

The game includes eight color-coded sets of prompt cards. Wish cards elicit from individual children their interpretation of their life situation, safe cards allow them to explore general issues and escape cards enable them various moves on the board and let them talk about their needs.

Players are faced with more than 200 questions in English, with translations in the dominant languages of Zulu, Sesotho and Afrikaans, such as: "When I think of someone dying, I ...;" "The thing about HIV/AIDS that scares me most is ..." and "My favorite TV program is ..."

Anyone with a reasonable knowledge of AIDS can guide affected children along the "Magical AIDS Journey," Marcus said. If serious psychosocial issues become obvious with any of the five children playing it at any given time, they will know to turn to formalized counselling, she says.

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