(Gogo Jean Cornneck and her babies).
Jean Cornneck, popularly known as â€œGogo,â€? or grandma, cuts an all-caring motherly figure. Sheâ€™s been hailed as Africaâ€™s mother Theresa by some.
A soldier without a sword, she runs Mother of Peace Community, an orphanage in Mutoko, about 144 kilometers east of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.
The orphanage has more than 158 children and the numbers fluctuate with deaths, adoptions and family re-unions. â€œSome babies die of opportunistic infections while others are taken back by the elderly when they are four years old,â€? Gogo Cornneck says.
She was born in 1933 in Driefontein in the southern part of Zimbabwe and trained as a nurse before she attained a degree in social work in England. After she retired, she founded the home with the support of friends in 1994. â€œBefore I retired, I knew what I wanted to do,â€? she says in her motherly tone. â€œI wanted to work for the Lord. I prayed about it. I had a catering business. I left everything and came her to work for the Lord. I chose to leave money and to work for God.â€?
Her â€œwork for God,â€? has her many awards, including the Zimnat Insurance Company Ordinary People’s Award in December 2002 for her selfless devotion to the orphansâ€”her â€œchildrenâ€? as she puts it.
The work is stressful. Her heart skips several beats anytime one of her babies fall sickâ€”she has seen too many of these tender ones succumb to AIDS through the years. â€œThese babies are gifts from God. The more you live with children, the more you love them,â€? she says.
But struggle is nothing new to her. During Zimbabweâ€™s war of national liberation, in the 1970s, she collected clothes, food, drugs and other materials and spirited them to the guerrilla fighters and children in refugee camps in Zambia and Mozambique.
Where do all the babies in her care come from? A mother who has just discovered that she has tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, drops by and asks that Gogo take over the childâ€™s care; an adult hears a cry, and finds an infant abandoned in a toilet; someone waiting to board a bus notices some strange movement near a pile of luggage and discovers a childâ€”all these infants end up with Gogo Cornneck.
Some come with full-blown AIDS. Many are surrendered to Gogoâ€™s care by elderly people in this rural district who are too poor to purchase milk formulas, generally expensive here and only available in urban areas.
Gogo Cornneck has a team of like-mended people who help her nourish these babies, feeding them milk slowly, with teaspoons or through feeding tubes. Gogo canâ€™t afford costly intravenous drips.
Her work is not for the faint-hearted. She is involved in the overall administration of the centre and often spends most of her time with dying babies and others who have grown up in her care. She continues to accept babies even though sheâ€™s unsure whether she can afford to care for them. â€œI can’t turn away babies in these sorry circumstances. We have to take them aboard even if we have little resources,â€? she says.
The AIDS pandemic continues to wreak havoc in Zimbabwe despite some signs showing a decline in the prevalence rate. Latest official health figures indicate that at least 1.6 million Zimbabweans are living with HIV/AIDS, down from 2.3 million in 2003. Less than 200,000 children between 0-14 years are infected with the virus.
The hardest hit is the 15-24 year age group and only 20 percent of this group is aware of their status. â€œWe should be proud of ourselves and this achievement but we should not let down our guard,” notes Dr. David Parirenyatwa, Zimbabweâ€™s health minister. â€œZimbabwe has taken HIV and AIDS as a movement. Everyone is involved and this seems to be working.â€?
The latest health survey shows that by August 2006, the country’s HIV prevalence rate declined from 34% in 2002 to 18.1% in the 15-49 age group, the most sexually active and productive group, despite the crippling sanctions which has adversely affected the country’s HIV/AIDS programs. At least 42,000 people are benefiting from the government’s free Anti-retrovirals (ARVs) program. The government plans to have 171,000 people on the program by the end of this year. More people would benefit if it werenâ€™t for the Western sanctions imposed by the U.S., U.K., and other countries.
Despite the gains, many of the able-bodied have been struck down, leaving the elderly and children to care for themselvesâ€”they walk miles and miles in search of food. The traditional African extended family system, which in the past had survived everything, is showing signs of serious strain. Aunts, uncles, and cousins arenâ€™t there anymore.
The survey shows knowledge of HIV and AIDS was found to be very high in most Zimbabweans with 97.9% of women and 99.2% of men having heard of HIV an Aids and the majority believing that it can be avoided. Condom use among women stood at 45.7% compared to 42% in 1999. For men, the figure is 71.2% up from 70.2% in 1999. Still, there are 11 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa and the United Nations predicts that AIDS will produce another 12 million orphans in Africa over the next eight years. An estimated 24.5 million people are living with the disease in sub-Saharan Africa.
In an address to mark a past World Aids Day Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe urged all people in the country not to lose hope in the fight against the pandemic. â€œI feel deeply saddened by the unrelenting escalation of the AIDS epidemic in our country which continues to cause enormous suffering, premature losses of lives and as a result has a deleterious effect on socio-economic development,â€? he says.
Gogo is not deterred by any of the health experts’ alarmist figures. She opens the door of her home everydayâ€”and without fail, she finds a new child awaiting her care. â€œWe have no remuneration in our work,” Gogo says. “We have offered ourselves to do it voluntarily. We have offered to do this free of charge throughout our lives no matter how tough things may appear to be.”
Black Star Publisherâ€™s Note: Any reader wishing to assist Gogo can contact her through 011- 263-72-2345. Time zone: Zimbabwe is 7 hours ahead of United States Eastern Standard Time.
Tsiko is The Black Starâ€™s Southern Africa correspondent based in Harare, Zimbabwe. Readers who want to shout out to him and write via [email protected]
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