WHO ARE WE ENGAGING?
The uMkhanyakude District is one of 11 District Municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. Spanning an area of 13,000 square kilometers, it has a population of 575,000. UMkhanyakude is the poorest and most rural of the 11 KwaZulu-Natal districts, and one of the poorest and most rural areas within South Africa.
While South Africa as a whole has experienced rapid economic growth since the arrival of democracy in 1994, rural areas such as uMkhanyakude have lagged behind. For example, in uMkhanyakude:
• 98% of persons live in rural homesteads
• 77% of persons live below the poverty line
• Adult unemployment is 67%
• Per capita income is less than 1/3 of the national average.
While many areas of South Africa, especially urban areas, resemble middle class areas in Europe and North America, the profile of the uMkhanyakude District is closer to that of the rest of Africa:
• Only 10% of households are within 15 minutes’ travel time of a health clinic,
• Only 22% have access to safe water, and
• Only 19% have access to use of electricity for lighting.
These are the lowest percentages of any District in KwaZulu-Natal province. Not surprisingly, the District has the lowest score of any KwaZulu Natal district on the United Nation’s Human Development Index.
HIV AND DISEASE
UMkhanyakude has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. Adolescents growing up in uMkhanyakude have almost a 50% chance of contracting HIV during their lifetime and eventually dying from the disease. Fifteen percent of female high-school students are infected with HIV by the time they graduate and many more will contract other sexually transmitted infections; twenty-five percent will be pregnant.
Despite the prevalence of HIV, adolescents receive little education on strategies to avoid becoming infected with HIV, and how to live with HIV if infected. Students are almost never tested for HIV, nor do they have access to condoms to prevent HIV. Existing clinics aren’t accessible to students because of distance and the associated cost of travel. Additionally, the services provided at clinics are often geared toward adults, and not the special needs of adolescents.
Along with HIV come very high rates of infection with tuberculosis, including multiply-drug resistant tuberculosis. Because of limited access to clean water, uMkhanyakude still suffers periodic outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases, including schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia).
The schools in the uMkhanyakude District have suffered a long history of under-investment. During the time of apartheid governance and under the policy of “Bantu education” (low-level education for the black citizens of South Africa), the schools were intentionally designed to be second-class. Despite the commitment of the democratic government of South Africa and KwaZulu-Natal Province to equal education, rural schools still have severely limited resources.
The average class size is 60 students; some classes have more than 80 students. Few, if any, students ever have access to computer training or to the information available through the World Wide Web.
Notwithstanding the obvious hardships, a vibrant Zulu culture holds the uMkhanyakude community together, despite the many years of colonial domination and apartheid governance. The strong commitment of its citizens, who are attached and dedicated to a community that has some of the most spectacular scenery and nature preserves in all of Africa, is a testament to the strength of character of the community we work with.
Additionally, during the course of democratic governance, the uMkhanyakude District developed entrepreneurial and dynamic leadership – in civic administration, traditional (tribal) authority administration, and in its schools. Development of other civic society institutions, such as NGOs, is just beginning. Mpilonhle hopes to play a major role in helping expand the role of civil society in meeting the problems of the District.