(IRIN) – Twelve-year-old Nhlanhla Matsebula, one of Swaziland’s growing number of children orphaned by AIDS, has good reason to feel proud. He has mastered the skill of plowing a field with a team of oxen and in doing so, saved his late parents’ farm from being taken.

A boy like Nhlanhla would normally follow a plough driven by his father, dropping seeds into the furrows. But their parents left little behind besides land and the children faced eviction from a farm that had been their family home for generations…

“Swazi culture says that the right to occupy land depends on use. There is a lot of population pressure for land, and these AIDS orphans stand to lose their homes and their inheritance because they cannot work the fields,” said Lydia Mtembu, a community facilitator, as local volunteers who monitor the status of orphans and vulnerable children are called. Mtembu stops by to see Nhlanhla and Thembi at least twice a week.

Lacking any farming or agricultural skills, Nhlanhla, who lives on the farm with his younger sister, Thembi, has been unable to put the land to use and the farm has been unproductive for years. They had received help with their school fees from the government, their medical needs had ben attended to by the Red Cross, and food aid was provided by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP).

But now a new programme launched by WFP is teaching these children to help themselves. Through the Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools programme, “we are targeting orphans and vulnerable children, teaching them agricultural projects, life skills, and general maintenance of self,” WFP programme director for the project, Andrew Ngwenya, told IRIN/PlusNews. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund and the Ministry of Agriculture also contribute to the programme.

“The project is geared toward keeping the children on their farms, to make them productive, so they won’t lose their inheritance,” Ngwenya added.

Children attend classes on weekends, apart from their usual schoolwork. They are taught conservation agriculture, including crop rotation to avoid soil nutrient depletion and soil erosion prevention, poultry farming, vegetable cultivation, and livestock breeding. “The ages of the children in the classes is 12 to 17 – they learn by doing. That’s the theme of the project,” Ngwenya commented.

“Some of the adult farmers should be taking these classes. The kids are getting a very good grounding in agriculture. They are learning a farm isn’t just a place to feed a family, but it can be a business where farmers make money and serve the nation,” said Hanson Dlamini, a field officer from the ministry of agriculture.

The pilot phase of the programme started in early 2007 at five locations benefiting 125 orphans and vulnerable children and is set to expand to 500 sites, assisting over 1,000 children. But much remains to be done to dent the huge population of vulnerable children.

According to UNICEF there will be 120,000 children orphaned by AIDS by 2010, the equivalent of 10 percent of the population. “By 2010, we hope to have worked with over 45,000 orphans and vulnerable children,” said Ngwena.

Meanwhile, Nhlanhla aims to turn the farm around. As he steers the four massive oxen and plough blade with great concentration, Thembi follows behind on this practice run, pretending to drop seeds into the exposed earth. The children will plough their small field for real when spring rains come, usually in October or November.  (www.irinnews.org)


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