Studying Life Strategies of AIDS Orphans in Rural Kenya

Miroslava Prazak. Africa Today. Volume 58, Issue 4. Summer 2012.

“She is a victim,” someone might say about an individual living with HIV in Kuria District, Kenya. More frequently, however, neighbors use the past tense—”He was a victim—to denote that someone has passed away from HIV/AIDS related illness. Not that HIV/AIDS is explicitly included in or follows the explanation, as in, “She was a victim of HIV.” Rather, one hears simply, “She was a victim,” and that is enough. While it is indeed spoken scores of times throughout the year and is well understood, it remains disturbing to speaker and listener alike. The disquiet stems from at least three reasons. First, this statement marks the death of a familiar someone and attributes that death to an increasingly common group of illnesses exacerbated by AIDS. Facing mortality is not easy, and the announcement of a friend or neighbor’s death further reifies the cause. Second, the quasipassivity of the linguistic construction is disturbing, at least to me. Illness, even of the fatal variety, is not uncommon in rural Kenya. But one doesn’t hear of someone becoming the victim of malaria, of diarrhea, or of typhoid, to mention three endemic, most widespread, often fatal illnesses in the region. The powerlessness embodied in this phrase is a distinctive characteristic of the HIV pandemic in Africa, and is intertwined with the reality of the disease on every level. And third, the phrase is disturbing because it assigns victimhood to the deceased while ignoring those for whom the announced death is really the start of a different way of life-those who have to overcome their parents’ “victimhood” and live with its implications for the duration of their future lives. These are, of course, the orphans left in the wake of the deadly wave.

The first death from AIDS in Kenya was identified in 1984 (Kates and Leggoe 2005), and prognosticators have forecast and tracked the spread of the illness, but it had not played a significant part in public daily life in Kuria District until the late 1990s, when public officials began to speak of it at baraza meetings (weekly meetings of community elders). The spreading epidemic was a topic no one openly discussed, and people believed they would be breaking a law if they discussed any specific person in connection with HIV. Till then, they were duplicating the stance of the Kenyan government in downplaying the incidence of HIV in the country (Epstein 2007:68). The opening up of the AIDS epidemic to public discussion has been attributed to a number of occasions, such as the 1997 address to the Parliament (Republic of Kenya 1997), the founding of the National AIDS Control Council in 1999, President Moi’s declaration of HIV/AIDS as a national disaster in 2000 (Ngome 2003:45), and the inauguration of a new government in 2003. To this observer, an unaccustomed freedom of speech was in evidence in rural Kenya in 2003, and with it a general recognition of the AIDS epidemic in the country. This included news coverage, radio programs, the inclusion of a course on HIV in the primary school curriculum, and the erection of billboards all around the country, informing the public of the dangers of the virus.

In the decades of official and communal silence on the topic within Kenya, I followed available publications on HIV/AIDS in East Africa, mostly generated by branches of the United Nations, describing the unfolding specter of illness and death, usually from an epidemiological perspective (e.g., United Nations 2003). Other, more academic sources published studies focused on the economic costs of the epidemic (Barnett 2004; Forsythe and Rau 1996; Fox et al. 2004; Robalino, Voetberg, and Picazo 2002; Were and Nafula 2003; Yamano and Jayne 2004), some on social implications (Floyd et al. 2003; Glynn et al. 2004; Guest 2003; Topouzis 1994), including change in household composition, with gradual disappearance of the parental generation (Urassa et al. 2001), and grandparents and other relatives caring for children (Bandawe and Louw 1997; Lindblade et al. 2003; Ntozi 1997; Nyambedha, Wandibba, and Aagaard-Hansen 2003; Urassa et al. 1997). Other anticipated trends and tendencies were identified, including an increase in the number of female- and child-headed, impoverished households (Townsend 1997) and the appearance of child-headed homes (Foster et al. 1997). The picture that emerged from the literature was sobering, but the quality of the data seemed questionable, tenuous, and tentative. By and large, the estimates were based on sentinel surveillance of pregnant women anonymously tested for HIV (Central Bureau of Statistics 2004:217). These data were inserted into models generated in offices, sometimes laboratories, and were used to describe the shape and extent of the epidemic. They were not produced by ethnographic, grounded research. A correspondence between estimates and realities was always assumed, but it was not until the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey of 2003 that a random population was tested for the virus, and actual prevalence data were collected.

On the basis of data and new models, estimates of prevalence rates in the country were sharply scaled back. The 2003 KDHS survey presented evidence of “lower than expected HIV prevalence in the country” (Central Bureau of Statistics 2004:xvii). This adjustment was met with an outcry from Kenyans and other African observers objecting to international organizations, donors, and nongovernmental organizations exaggerating the problem to raise money and get governments to act faster, feeding into the international media tendency to sensationalize bad news stories about Africa (Keim 2009:19). Using research carried out in policy making and implementation sites, researchers pointed out that because of the ungrounded quality of the understanding of the scope and parameters of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, policies designed to combat it may have been misdirected (Booth 2004; Epstein 2007) and thereby ineffectual in stemming the spread of the virus and syndrome.

In The Lancet Infectious Diseases, the number of children orphaned by AIDS in Kenya was reported at 890,000 in 2002, the third-highest number in the world. The same year, 2.5 million adults in the country were believed to be living with the disease, and both numbers were seen as likely to grow (Siringi 2002:516). KDHS data suggest that the prevalence rates have been declining slightly, from 8.7 percent and 4.6 percent for women and men aged 15-49 respectively in 2003 to 8 and 4.3 percent in 2008.3 Urban areas continue to be harder hit than rural ones, though the difference is shrinking: 7.2 percent of urban residents in 2008-2009 were HIV positive, as were 6 percent of rural ones (Kenya National Bureau of Statistics 2010:217). In 2003, 10 percent of urban dwellers and 5.6 percent of rural ones were HIV positive (Central Bureau of Statistics 2004:223). Regional heterogeneity showed Nyanza Province to have an overall prevalence of 15 percent in 2003, Nairobi 10 percent, and all other provinces between 4 and 6 percent. In 2008-2009, the prevalence rate in Nyanza was 14 percent, in Nairobi 7 percent, and in the other provinces between 3 and 7 percent. In 2008-2009, 16 percent of women aged 15-49 in Nyanza province were HIV positive, as were 11 percent of men (Kenya Bureau of Statistics 2010:217); this was down from 18 percent and 12 percent, respectively, in 2003 (Central Bureau of Statistics 2004:223).


My research into the shape and impact of the AIDS epidemic on families in rural Kenya began in 2007 in Kuria District of Nyanza Province, the province most affected by the pandemic. The Kuria are a minority ethnic group within a province dominated by Luo and Kisii peoples. They make their living through smallholder agriculture, petty entrepreneurship, and casual employment. The district was newly created in 2003 and divided in two in 2008, and it continues to be largely undeveloped and impoverished. It has only one paved road, which bisects it as it connects Kisumu, Kisii, and (via Tarime) Mwanza, Tanzania. Only the district capital, Kehancha, has (sporadic) electricity service. No improved water or sanitation facilities exist in the area. Cattle rustling, as well as weapon and drug smuggling, have led to encampment of General Service Unit security forces in the area for most of the years since the late 1970s.

Over the past twenty-five years, I have spent almost five years, divided into eight field seasons, in residence in Kuria district, and have a long-term, in-depth familiarity with the lifeways of its inhabitants. The current research was carried out using two methods, with the aim that, in combination, they would illuminate the extent and the character of the epidemic. The principal aim of the research, as well as of this paper, is to provide a holistic, culturally informed description of orphans among the Kuria. It offers a rare, grounded, longitudinal study, focused at the homestead level-at the actual lives of orphans and caregivers.

Quantitative Research

Survey research was used to collect primary data in eight contiguous rural communities to see if and how HIV/AIDS is reshaping domestic groups. A questionnaire comprised of about a hundred questions was administered to each homestead head in eight contiguous communities of one administrative division. Through these data, collected at four points in time since 1988, it is possible to track continuities and changes to the homestead (umugi), the basic residential, economic, and social unit in Kuria society. The quantitative data presented are based on a census of all the homesteads in these communities.

The population subject to this study is comprised of many of the same people with whom I have worked since 1984. Consequently, the previously collected survey data in the same communities from 1988, 1994, and 2003 served as a background to the realities captured in 2007, providing an almost twenty-year trajectory to examine in terms of the demographic composition of resident domestic groups, their movement though development stages, the family type associated with each stage, and the kinship relations among coresident members. These are the twenty years during which HIV established itself in Kenya.

Data were analyzed to identify continuities and changes in homestead size and composition, and to identify which homes disappeared because of deaths of the parents and which included orphans among their members. The task of identifying homes that had disappeared was more difficult than expected. Because a census of previously existing homes in these repeatedly studied communities exists, it was not difficult to see which homes were no longer there. But when a homestead disappears, whom can one interview to find out what happened? Sometimes the kin living nearby can provide answers, but dealing even with apparently simple, straightforward questions proved to be challenging. That the owners had died was relatively easy to ascertain, but what were the causes? HIV/AIDS continues to be shrouded in secrecy, and people remain reluctant to admit that someone closely related has contracted and/or succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses. This was especially true of orphaned children, who maintained that their mother or father had been bewitched, even when their uncles and aunts revealed that their siblings/in-laws had died of AIDS. At other times, when the home belonged to a member of an otherwise unrepresented lineage in the community, there was no one to ask, or no one was willing to say.

The survey questionnaires identified twenty-five homesteads as housing orphans. This represents more than 4 percent of the homesteads in the surveyed communities. To cross-check the accuracy of coverage, several individuals in the communities were asked to compile lists of orphans, and the two sets of information (survey, informant reportage) were compared to each other. The twenty-five homesteads are a subset, selected purposively because of the distinguishing variable: they had an orphan or orphans resident. Each of these homesteads was visited again to verify the presence of orphans, and eighteen were confirmed as still having orphan residents, four to six months later. Two trained interviewers and/or I arranged to talk with all orphans over the age of ten, as well as with the principal caregivers. All interviews were tape-recorded, transcribed, and in some cases, translated.

Qualitative Research

Qualitative data-collection methods (participant-observation, interviewing, and opinion-poll taking) were employed to learn how community members are adapting their conceptions of family to meet and explain current realities. Participant-observation was carried out over the course of a year, in homes, schools, government offices, barazas, community meetings- everyday situations, as well as special occasions. People in many spheres were interviewed using unstructured and structured techniques: orphans, caregivers, kin, and officials (health-department workers, district officers in charge of children’s affairs, health officers, AIDS-program officials for VCT and PMCTC, nongovernmental-organization directors and staff for World Vision, ActionAid, SOTENI, the Komotobo Children’s Home, and others). The opinion poll was administered to all standard-eight pupils in the division four times during the two decades, tracing their ideas on ideal and actual marriage patterns of their parents, responsibilities of adults to children, and many other issues. Of particular interest was whether and to what extent the obligations and expectations among family members are changing in response to the needs of increasing numbers of HIV/AIDS orphans. Relying on interviews with orphans to gain an understanding of the psychological and emotional needs of AIDS orphans is a methodology employed and described by a number of the authors whose work is published in a collection edited by Arvind Singhal and W. Stephen Howard (2003), and this study offers a further case.

After identifying the homes, we began visiting and interviewing the orphans and their caregivers. Initially, I conducted open-ended, unstructured interviews with children I knew because their parents had been my friends, as I had an established rapport with them before they were orphaned. I kept track of the experiences and points that they repeatedly made, and on the basis of these test interviews, I began to formulate an interview guide for the kinds of questions that yielded the most meaningful responses. There are few examples of research on orphans in Africa that actually entail interviewing children, and the ethical issues and questions were troubling. Despite attempts to be as gentle and empathetic as possible, the interviews were difficult, both for the respondents and for me and my assistants. Training by a therapist who specializes in working with children suffering from posttraumatic stress opened up a more reciprocal aspect to the work. By encouraging respondents to tell their stories, the interview itself became a healing session, giving the children the opportunity to express their grief and other psychological challenges. They were encouraged to construct narratives that enabled them to come to terms with their bereavement, and perhaps begin to move beyond the experience.

In rural communities, oral tradition has been a vehicle for selfunderstanding and healing throughout history (Cook, Fritz, and Mwonya 2003; Pillay 2003). Through storytelling, survival strategies become explicit, as does the recognition that the experience is shared more widely within the community. Storytelling thus becomes an opportunity for children to have a voice in creating hope and optimism (Cook, Fritz, and Mwonya 2003:100). As my own research progressed, my understanding of local conceptions of death and communal norms expanded. I was invited to participate in funerals. Just a few months into the research project, my host (a classificatory brother-in-law to me) died unexpectedly, and as a member of the family, I experienced the many stages in the process of bereavement, seclusion, decision making, and reincorporation into everyday society, and thus gained a good sense of the communal norms in circumstances of death and bereavement. As I listened to the stories of the orphans’ experiences, I could understand and compare the circumstances of death and the subsequent activities of the survivors against the customary practices in those circumstances.

The numbers of people, both children and adults, who sought me out so I could hear their stories, as well as the willingness of those I sought out to share theirs when asked, gave the sense that they were glad for my interest and for the opportunity to externalize their experiences. In part, some of the participants in the study hoped that in sharing their stories, they would reach a larger audience, some of whom might be able to become donors or sponsors of assistance in their future. Though I made it clear that I was not in a position to assist other than by broadcasting their stories through research publications, I was aware that some of the children had hopes of individualized long-term assistance, that the participation in the study was a first step toward finding a sponsor. The elements of the prevalent attitude mirror those expressed by orphans in Swaziland, collected and written by Hall (2004).

The interviews began with a very general question. After introducing my research topic, asking for permission, assuring respondents that they were free to not answer any question they wished, as well as to terminate the interview whenever they wanted, I apologized beforehand for any sadness or pain my questions might cause. I informed them that I wished to understand what life has been like for them since their parents passed away. Generally, the open prompt elicited some limited response, which was followed up with specific questions: who died first, the mother or the father? Was he/ she ill? Did he/she die in an accident? Was a cause of death determined? Did it happen at home or in a hospital? Then the same questions for the other parent. Who paid for the hospital bill? For the funeral? Who decided what would happen with the orphans? Were they asked what they wanted to do? And so on. Throughout, all members of a sibling group were sought out for interviews, with the intention of capturing their individual stories and gauging the degree of overlap in the way each experienced his or her orphanhood, as well as the individuals they identified as their most important caregivers.


Domestic Groups

In 2007, as on the two prior survey occasions in 1994 and 2003, the proliferation of homesteads dispersed over the countryside was immediately apparent. The survey confirmed a tremendous growth of both the population and the number of homesteads in the twenty years, from 233 homes with 2,162 people in 1988, to 574 homes and 4,461 people in 2007. But once these numbers are disaggregated according to various criteria, the overwhelming picture is one of basic continuity. The biggest change is in the average size of a homestead, which since 1988 decreased by 1.5 people, from 9.28 to 7.77. Most of this difference is due to a decrease in the number of children, by almost one child (0.91). The next-greatest decrease is in adult married women (by 0.37 of a person) and men (by 0.16 of a person), categories that include the homestead head and his wife/wives, brothers, sons, and daughters- in-law. There is a slight increase in single boys and girls above the age of fifteen years (by 0.07 persons for boys and by 0 .16 persons for girls, respectively), indicating later age at marriage for both (Prazak and Voice 2010).

In the course of its existence, a domestic group changes form and size reflecting the demographic events that it is subject to. It is formed by marriage and the birth of some children (stage 1), and begins to be transformed by the marrying of daughters away from the home (stage 2), by the bringing in of daughters-in-law as sons marry (stage 3), and finally, reduced in size by sons establishing their own homes, the natal home enters stage 4. The youngest son becomes the owner of the homestead when his father dies. Young married men are splitting away from their father’s homesteads prematurely, before the customary period of homestead fissioning at the time of circumcision of grandchildren. This is confirmed by the change in the distribution of homes according to development-cycle stage, which shows an increase in the number of homes at the first stage (by 9.5%) and a corresponding decrease (of 8%) in homes at the fourth stage. Young men continue to opt to set up homes early, at times at the insistence of their fathers, who are afraid to take on the responsibility for choices their adult sons are making (e.g., to become cattle thieves). Potentially, the decline in the number of homes in the final stage can be attributed to another old pattern having been discarded: the youngest sons, who keep the homes at this stage going, are setting up their own homes, and thus forcing their surviving parents-mothers, but occasionally surviving fathers-to become their dependents, rather than vice versa.

The above changes are very small, but confirmed by the analysis of the family-type distribution of homesteads over the two decades. A significant (9.2%) increase in the number of elementary simple homes is evident-that is, those that can be glossed as nuclear families in the Western sense. This is accompanied by a decrease of homes with two married generations present (by 3.2% in the elementary extended homes). An apparently short-term difference is a decrease by 3.3% in polygamous extended homes since 2003. Though not large, the implications of these domestic changes are dire for orphans, who have fewer extended kin in close proximity who might take care of them.

In Kuria society, the significant basic unit of social relations is the lineage, and descent relations are paramount in defining access to membership in the corporate group and hence, to economic and political rights. In this society of many polygamous men, the conjugal relationship is quite different from Western standards, and women are responsible for feeding their own children. Clear delineation of families is further complicated by the fact that men spend time away from home looking for work, or working on long-term or contract basis outside the communities. Though significant in the economic life of their families as sources of remittances and nodes in networks connecting the local with the national, these men are usually not fully coresident members in the homesteads they own; rather, they live in several households, each of which corresponds to a wife. This pattern has unfortunate consequences for health, as many studies of the spread of HIV/AIDS attest. Excluding information on cause of death or prior migration histories, which have not yet been analyzed, the data show that in the administrative division of my research, the percentage of deceased homestead heads has gradually increased-from 16 percent in 1988 and 1994, to 19 percent in 2003, and 22 percent in 2007. No such trend is evident in mortality of wives, the number hovering around 9 percent throughout the two decades of data collection. Nor is an increase in mortality evident for adult sons and daughters; for both the number hovers around 13 percent. Since it is not possible to deconstruct these numbers according to cause of death, nor to deconstruct the national data according to the kinship categories used here, it is difficult to generalize based on these findings, or to interpret them further.

A homestead head is obligated toward members of his patrilineage: his father, paternal uncles, sons, grandsons, brothers’ sons, and other consanguines, who stand to inherit from the same lineage, so the security of lineage members depends on protecting their collective rights. But by extension, males of the same generation are each other’s greatest competitors for resources, especially land, and issues of usurpation of the patrimony of younger siblings from weaker houses-where there were fewer sons, or where obligations incurred through previous arrangements have altered the power relations between units otherwise considered equal-have been the mainstay of disputes going back decades (Ruel 1958; Tobisson 1986). The potential for discord introduced by the presence of orphans looms large.


Commenting on the position of orphans within Kuria society, an influential elder summed up the situation thus:

In Kuria custom, a child is owned by the family … For instance, if I am the father, with my wife, we have a child, that child is first owned by us. Second, they are owned by my parents, the grandparents of this child, if they are alive. Then third, they are owned by my brothers. If I die, or we die both of us, [the] first owners [who] will take care of the orphans are the parents, their grandies. If they are not there, then my brothers, their uncles, own them. That’s the tradition of the Kuria people; it is still there. But now, because of the economy and maybe the change of life, close relatives are not willing, not forthcoming, to take care of these children. In Kuria, the number of these orphans has increased a lot after the coming of HIV/AIDS: many parents have passed away because of that, and therefore many, many orphans are here in Kuria now. So who takes care of them? (SM, Tape 07-08, 12/3/07)

In their survival strategies, which obligations and expectations are activated by children and caregivers within the framework of relationships of descent, kinship, and neighborliness? Customarily in rural Kenya, the family provided a safety net; but socioeconomic conditions have changed considerably in the last few decades, and so has the capacity of the extended family to make places for orphans (for similar situations in Kenya more generally, see Bradley 1995; Kilbride and Kilbride 1990; Nyambedha, Wandibba, and Aagaard-Hansen 2003; Rwomire 2001; Weisner, Bradley, and Kilbride 1997).

Two considerations need discussion at the outset of describing the ethnographic reality of orphaned children. The first is how to define or delimit who is an orphan. The Kenya government’s definition is that someone is an orphan if he/she has lost both parents, or if he/she has lost his/her mother. How does one understand that? Several interpretations are possible, both on a theoretical level (e.g., the father’s main role is to define a position for the child within his lineage; that is a condition of the orphan’s birth and remains true for life), or a practical one (e.g., the mother, especially in patrilineal societies where polygyny is practiced, is the person who feeds and supports her offspring, and her loss significantly diminishes the orphan’s chances of survival). This vulnerability is underscored by the name applied to orphans in Kuria language-entakaana. It is a term that lacks the human prefix (omo/ aba). Clearly, orphans hold a status outside of the normal realm of human designations marking a person’s move through the life cycle (umuriisia, umumura, omosaacha, omogaaka for males and omosaagane, umuiseke, omokari and umukungu for females). In this research, children who have lost both their parents are considered orphans.

The second question revolves around age. Using the Western and Kenyan national criterion of eighteen being legal majority, should only those under the age of eighteen at the time of their parents’ death be considered orphans? What about a year later, when they are no longer minors: do they stop being orphans? Such a delineation stands at odds with most Kuria people’s understanding that a person is really only established as an adult when he/she is married and has an offspring or two. The attainment of adulthood is a gradual process of transitions between statuses of increasing social value and responsibility that has little to do with chronological age but is much more dependent on the ability and opportunity to meet the skills needed for livelihood. Further, because reproductive careers span decades, sibling groups often span decades in their ages. Are only some to be considered orphans at the time of their parents’ death? In terms of age, in this study, indigenous conceptions are used to delineate who is an orphan. The construction is congruent with the changes of status within the life cycle. Thus, the category “orphan” is more inclusive than it would be if using numerical age as the determining criterion.

Anthropological literature has valorized African lineage systems, focusing on lineages as corporate political bodies in uncentralized, “acephalous” political systems, characterized by a lack of institutionalized positions of authority (Evans-Pritchard and Fortes 1940; Middleton and Tait 1958). The egalitarianism of membership has been emphasized, all males of the same descent depth exercising equal rights to access resources, to make decisions, and to rally support in the case of conflict. But critics caution against mistaking tidy functionalist models for the actual workings of society (Kuper 1982). And, in fact, current society exhibits a good deal of stratification, some based on customary criteria such as age and gender, other based on wealth and exigencies of life history of individuals, family groups, and lineage segments (Prazak 1992).

As a counterbalance to this view, scholars of North Africa and the Middle East emphasized the complementary opposition between lineage segments of equal depth (Lindholm 1982:69), focusing on the fierce competition among brothers, half-brothers, paternal cousins-in fact, all the males at the same structural depth of a lineage-with each other over access to resources, whether land or cattle. The relevant implication in this context is that although the lineage unites to hold land, its members struggle among themselves over the control and distribution of land and moveable wealth. To prevail in this context, a man’s ability to gain support from individuals at other structural depths is essential. The rights of orphans to their patrimony have to be upheld by their uncles for them to gain access to the land that had been allotted to their father, but their uncles face a dilemma, especially in situations where land is scarce: they can either support the rights of their nephews, or take control of their deceased brother’s land and add it to the inheritance of their own sons, thereby in effect disinheriting the orphans. Because of the segmentary nature of this patrilineal society, orphans are at a structural disadvantage vis-à-vis their parallel cousins.

Commonly, brothers of a deceased man decide what is to happen with the orphans (their nieces and nephews), sometimes in consultation with relatives of his deceased wife, but always with members of the patrilineage. The two main choices are to allow the orphans to continue to live in the home of their deceased parents as a sibling group, or to divide them between various members of the kin group. Orphan sibling groups living on their own is the most common arrangement in this research area, accounting for half the cases. Their specific living arrangements vary. The wide range of ages is often an advantage, as younger siblings might join the homesteads of their older, married siblings. Or, if any one of the orphans is old enough, he is pressured to marry, so that his incoming bride takes care of the entire sibling group. Since girls are usually in their teens when they are married, this is an immense responsibility and burden.

The experience of Titus Chacha is a case in point. His mother died in 1996, when he was sixteen years old. He was her oldest son, one of four children, but she was her husband’s second wife, and was followed by a third one as well. All three of the wives, as well as the husband, passed away. Titus lives in a homestead with the youngest son of the first wife, now twenty-two, his own younger brother, now twenty-one, and the firstborn of the third wife, a boy now fifteen. The two younger sons of the third wife passed away when very young. Titus is married, and he and his wife have two small daughters. His two younger sisters live away: the older of the two is married, and the younger one lives with her, helping look after her children. When both his parents had passed away, he was faced with the responsibility of taking care of his full and half siblings, as he was the eldest of the boys remaining at home. Asked why he chose to marry, he responded “I myself saw that I can’t be alone with the family because I must help them” (BNN, Tape 08-03, 5/23/08).

In some sibling/child-headed homes, the orphans depend on others to provide food. A relative or well-wisher might bring them a sack of maize, which the orphans are then responsible for processing and cooking for themselves. They might gather wild foods to eat, or depend on the charity of others for individual meals. Their needs are often met in the most minimal way. The sibling group homes hold the advantage that children remain together, in the communities where they and their parents are well known, and many other family members live nearby. By remaining on their father’s land, they are preserving their inheritance and can tap into his social ties. This sentiment was expressed by Winston, a caretaker of four orphans left behind by the death of his sister-in-law in the previous year. As he is employed in Nairobi, he does not live in the community, but he has been supporting the children of an older brother who had passed away a long time ago. When asked what will happen when the two orphaned boys come of age, he responded with “yes, I will divide land for them … Anyway, it has not been measured up to now; the land … has not been divided. These boys will get their land after it has been divided” (MMM, Tape 08-03, 5/23/08).

Sometimes, though they live as a sibling group on their own, the responsibility for meeting their needs has been distributed among kin and affines, so that perhaps each of their father’s surviving brothers is responsible for the expenses, such as paying school fees and fees for health care, for one of the orphaned children. In this way, one orphan’s needs may be met by his oldest paternal uncle, his younger sister’s needs be met by a grandmother, his other sister’s needs met by a younger paternal uncle, and so on. Thus, one nuclear family does not bear all the costs of rearing all the orphaned siblings. Still, individually as well as collectively, the orphans obviously and profoundly lack parental care-the guidance of adults to teach them adult skills and behaviors. Despite Kurians’ claims to exalt the patriline, orphans living in sibling groups most commonly said they received material and emotional aid mostly from their mother’s kin, not from members of their patrilineage, yet in only a couple of cases had the orphaned sibling group gone to live with their mother’s relations. Living with people of various degrees of patrilineal kin was still much more common, especially living with a father’s brother, a father’s mother (i.e., grandmother on the paternal side), and a mother’s cowife (with one’s half-siblings).

In cases where the sibling group of orphans is split up, some of the children do typically go to relatives from their mother’s side. Maternal grandmothers, aunts, and uncles all provide care for individual orphans. Often, the arrangements are more complicated, so, for example, an orphan lives and eats with his/her grandmother, but it is an uncle (maternal or paternal) who provides cash to meet his/her needs, whether health, clothing, or school fees. In all cases, the orphans need to be enormously flexible to meet their needs. The most common problem they mention is the lack of money to pay school fees. Once they finish attending the “free” primary schools, they must be able to pay school fees to continue into secondary school. An insurmountable challenge for most, this crossroads is the primary obstacle to future options.

Orphans from sibling groups that are split up and placed with various relatives are the most difficult to track, since they often move out of the survey communities. Further, their living situations are typically unstable, and much tension is described by both orphans and caregivers when orphaned children are introduced into the home of the caregiver. The orphans often feel that they are not treated as well as their cousins, and that the expectations their care providers have of the contribution the orphans are to make to the work of the home makes them into laborers, rather than kin. Especially when the caregivers are elderly widows or distant kin, the orphans are often expected to perform the work of a hired worker, but are not paid. They are given accommodation and food, but seldom any spending money. These orphans rarely feel allegiance to their care providers, and tend to move between homes frequently. The caregivers remarked on the difficulty of disciplining orphans, who in their estimation, always feel they were picked on, and refuse advice or chastisement on the grounds that the caregivers are not their parents.

And indeed, in the villages, child labor by orphans is a common component in the domestic labor force, both working in the farm operation and in the home. Grateful to have a place to live, food to eat, and sometimes, to be able to go to school, orphaned children contribute to the functioning of many homes. Their presence is almost never reported in the survey questionnaires, testifying to the fact the homestead heads and other respondents do not view them as long-term members of those homesteads. In the homestead in which I resided, over the course of a year four orphaned children came and went, working in the household for periods of time, and then moving on, sometimes having stolen goods, sometimes simply having decided to go elsewhere. Because I was looking for them, I asked about children I did not know that I was encountering in the homes I visited. Sometimes orphans, sometimes simply from impoverished families, they seldom had any schooling, or any possessions beyond the clothes they were wearing when they had arrived.

Uncles and grandparents accept the care for orphaned grandchildren or nieces and nephews out of a strong sense of responsibility to look after their brother’s or son’s children. Because of the wide range of sibling group ages, the case of Simon stands as a good example. At the age of thirty-four, he is married with four children of his own. As the youngest son, he inherited his deceased father’s homestead, and he looks after his widowed mother and unmarried younger sister. He has responsibility for the orphaned children of his older brother, who died when Simon was sixteen, and whose widow he had assisted since the mid-1990s. She died of AIDS in 2005, leaving five children, one of whom lives in Simon’s home. Three of them live on their own within the homestead, and one of the five, the second-born daughter, lives with Simon’s oldest brother in a market town nearby. Those living on their own are fed by their grandmother, from food provided by her and Simon and his wife. The grandmother expects the orphaned children to work in the fields, and their education is negatively affected. The sister of the orphans living at the market is to be supported in school by the uncle she lives with, but he has ten children of his own, and is unable to provide school fees for everyone. So his niece tends to be the last one to have her fees paid, and she regularly misses more than half the term, excluded from school for nonpayment.

Simon is a secondary-school teacher, and he encourages the boy living with him to do homework and perform well at school, but the boy is sensitive to criticism, and Simon and his wife both explain that their attempts to offer guidance are met by a surly, negative attitude. Reflecting on his experience, Simon remarks on the duty that fell on his shoulders even before he was in a position to earn an income, aiding his widowed sister-in-law in looking after his brother’s kids. This responsibility was there as he married and began his own family, and throughout, whenever he wants to do something with his own children and wife, he feels pressured to take his nephews and nieces along. If he doesn’t, they complain that he treats them as inferior to his own children.

He, as well as virtually all the caregivers interviewed, expressed the view that the only solution to the orphan challenge is the establishment of institutions (orphanages) that would take care of orphaned children and their needs. They felt families do not have sufficient resources to do a fair job of caring for kids leftbehind upon the demise of their brothers and sisters or sons and daughters, and externally funded facilities were needed to alleviate the pressure the inheritance of the children caused on the family members’ resources. Throughout these discussions, the caregivers focused on the material needs of their charges, and did not even raise issues of psychological needs arising out of the traumas the orphans have experienced.

Emphasis on the material side of taking care of orphans is not surprising. Competition for resources has increased greatly over the past two decades in Kuria District. The growth in the numbers of people and homesteads in the research communities reflects both immigration and natural increase. High fertility has continued in the area, despite the Kenyan fertility transition reported to have taken place in the 1980s (Brass and Jolly 1993). These, after all, are farmers, and they desire children for a number of reasons, including the need to augment the farm labor force. The mushrooming of population and independent domestic groups has meant a dramatic downsizing in farm acreage, as land gets subdivided by homestead heads among sons as they reach social maturity. Though land ownership data are soft for a number of reasons, the figures collected indicate a decrease in landholding of about 29 percent per homestead head. The unfavorable economic situation is further exacerbated by the drying up of avenues of off-farm income generation. The last two decades have witnessed a radical shiftaway from homestead heads seeking a livelihood elsewhere, off farm, and supporting one’s family through remittances. In 1988, 36 percent of homestead heads were working away from the research communities. This dropped to 9 percent in 1994, and it seems to have stabilized in the 2000s at 13 percent. Without access to off-farm work, families depend on their own agricultural production to sustain themselves.

Not many institutions exist at the local level to meet the needs of orphaned children. Some fledgling CBOs and NGOs exist, but they are often staffed by untrained and inexperienced volunteers without adequate skills to develop programs that meet criteria for funding by overseas or government donors. In this district of 200,000 people, there is one long-established, government-approved orphanage: funded and run by a Swedish Evangelical Christian mission, it accommodates and takes care of eighteen children, most aged under three years. Research on the socialization of orphaned children being raised in group homes in other parts of Nyanza Province shows that their increasing isolation from the communities provokes much debate and anxiety about how they will eventually reintegrate into their societies once they leave institutional care (Cooper 2008:27).

Even if orphanages are not to be the solution to meeting orphan necessities, the need for assistance is felt widely: “[What] I’d like to get is finance [financial assistance], … to help them [the orphans he is aiding] to go ahead with their studies … I normally hear that there are so many NGOs … which have volunteered to help suchlike orphans … I know that the NGOs are bringing from London money to help people with HIV, so I do not know that these are people who are affected by HIV or these are not, you know … And NGOs [are needed] because the members of the family are not willing to help … They don’t have [the means]” (MMM, Tape 08-03, 5/23/08).

Three international nongovernment organizations operate in the district: World Vision, ActionAid, and SOTENI International. The former two are not focused on programs for orphaned children, but the third is explicitly aimed at creating “villages of hope,” communities that work “to prevent HIV/AIDS and reduce its effects while providing love, guidance, and resources to those affected by it” ( During the period of research, they were still negotiating to purchase land for building a community center. What their work will entail in Kuria District is yet to be seen.


The AIDS epidemic in Kuria District is one of long duration and a specific character. Spouses who have died of AIDS were frequently educated and employed, and apparently brought the illness from outside the local communities. The children they leftwere usually already teenagers at the death of their longer-surviving parent, and they are now desperately trying to find money to pay for school fees. They have no background in farming and were raised with the understanding that, to get ahead in life, they must be educated. When questioned why there are few young children who are orphaned, people say that women who are HIV positive tend not to give birth very much, and if they do, the child dies soon after, so there are few young children who are HIV positive.

The needs of orphaned children tend to be the same as those of all children: basic food, shelter, education, health care, and clothing. Because many orphans are from formerly elite (employed) families in the communities, they value education above all, and they find that obtaining school fees is their greatest challenge. Also, because they are not young children, they have so far tended to be successful in holding on to their inheritance of land, their rightful portion among their paternal uncles. Orphaned girls, who do not inherit in Kuria tradition, do not seem to be unduly pressured to marry, even though such an event would bring in resources by way of bridewealth to help their brothers establish their homes. In these communities, it is the orphaned boys who are of marriageable age who are pressured to take wives, for the previously mentioned reason. In cases where the orphan girls go to relatives who are more distant kin, there is sometimes gossip that the men providing for them are in fact treating them as second wives, and the wives of those men object to having the orphans come stay for these reasons.

Focusing on the homestead as the basic unit of study in this research made only a segment of the population of orphaned children accessible, and in many ways, they are the luckiest, being able, however marginally, to continue living in the communities and among people they know, many of them relatives of various degrees of closeness, who can be appealed to for help, and whose kindness and integrity are looked for in keeping channels of inheritance open while the children grow and mature. But orphans who enter the communities from elsewhere experience significantly different conditions and are quite hard to trace because of their unmarked presence, their invisibility in the web of lineage and kinship. To describe their circumstances and strategies for survival will require another research project, as will the tracing of the children whose sibling units dissolved along with their homes at the death of their parents and who have disappeared from the survey communities. These are the children who end up in market centers, in urban slums, and often in dangerous and precarious living situations. This study shows that, to develop meaningful interventions to alleviate suffering and uncertainty in the lives of orphans, the category “orphans” ought to be deconstructed, to allow for recognition of the variety of needs different groups or categories of parentless children experience. That could serve as a beginning to the drafting and implementation of meaningful, manageable, affordable policies.

In closing, let me return to the powerlessness of the victims and the silence that enfolds them and hides their plight. As things stand, it is not really possible to study the “victims” as commonly constructed, the persons with AIDS. They are hidden behind a wall of silence and shame. But the orphans are victims in the sense that however ill-prepared they may be, they are on their own. There is more than one type of victim in the AIDS panorama. The ill die, but the children, while tremendously burdened, are often extremely creative in their survival. And since, by their very numbers, they are a significant part of the future of the country, the meeting of their needs, including access to educational opportunities, ought to constitute a national priority for allocating funds-both national and donor-earmarked for combating the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.