Release date
April 25, 2008

Adopting A Girl, Breaking A Stigma

April 25, 2008, BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo —

By Lane Hartill

She'd been going to his mud hut for two years. She would quietly duck inside to the main room that had a potting-soil scent to it. The dampness sat heavy on her skin. That's where the four children slept. Dressed in rags, they dozed on cardboard on the packed earth floor.

Even with HIV, the children's father hiked into Bukavu every day and loaded a flour bag, which weighed almost as much he did, onto his back. Slumped over and slipping on mud, he packed it to the drop-off point. For this, he made less than a dollar. Sometimes, he got no money, just some flour as payment.

Grace with her new family

Teresa and Joseph adopted Grace despite the challenges it would pose. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Teresa*, who knows the man and his children well after spending so much time with them, realized he couldn't care for his kids. To make matters worse, there was no wife around to help; he'd infected three of them with HIV. All were dead.

So when he asked Teresa to take away his daughter, Grace, the one in the stained dress and with lesions on her cheeks, she couldn't say no. Teresa knew exactly what to do.

She rushed home to her husband, Joseph. She knew he would understand. Joseph, an unemployed teacher, never knew his father or mother. He's an orphan, raised by an aunt who died when he was a boy. After that, the church took over. Priests at a local mission became his family.

Into her request, Teresa casually dropped a bomb: The little girl is sick, she said. She has HIV.

Not Your Average Congolese

In Africa, children in need — whether they are orphans or not — are usually sent to live with relatives. It's rare for kids not to have extended family to care for them. In Congo, it's almost unheard of for a family to adopt an HIV-positive child. But Teresa isn't your average Congolese.

At only 23 years old, she radiates kindness and a maturity found in older women. She and Joseph have two biological children and have taken in a 14-year-old nephew whose mother died of an AIDS-related illness.

When she was only 16 years old, Teresa started volunteering for Fondation Femme Plus, a Congolese nongovernmental organization that is supported by Catholic Relief Services. She's been helping HIV-positive Congolese, almost daily, without pay, for seven straight years. Every week, she visits the 66 Congolese who have come to depend on her. And while volunteers warm to their clients, and relationships ripen into friendships, no volunteer has ever adopted a patient's HIV-positive child.

Fondation Femme Plus pays school fees for children of HIV-positive parents and provides startup money for small businesses; its volunteers counsel people living with HIV. The organization works closely with CRS in Bukavu on the Amitié project, which cares for HIV-positive Congolese, orphans and vulnerable children and is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The HIV prevalence rate in Bukavu is around 3 percent, according to 2005 statistics. But health professionals say the figure may be higher. Rape has become a tactic in the long-running conflict in eastern Congo. Many of the militia members who are raping women are HIV-positive.

"Men think HIV is what happens to military men, loose women, and chauffeurs and drivers," says Alexis Opanga, who works for CRS' Amitié project. But, he says, sensitization campaigns have increased the number of men voluntarily taking HIV tests.

While figures exist for AIDS orphans — some 1 million in the country, with 120,000 infected by HIV — no reliable figures exist for children like Grace who lived with one HIV-positive parent in a precarious situation.

The French organization Doctors Without Borders gives Grace's biological father antiretroviral medication and her, co-trimoxazole to fight off infections. She's fortunate: The United Nations estimates that fewer than 1,000 children with HIV in the Democratic Republic of Congo have access to treatment.

Teresa's request to adopt Grace didn't faze her husband. He remembered a promise he'd made to himself years ago.

"At school one day, I told myself I would take in a child, even if I didn't know them," he says. "As an orphan myself, I know the suffering orphans go through."

'We Are Here for You'

Grace is now their daughter. Joseph pays for her schooling. If she marries (she says she wants to be a nun), he will collect the dowry.

With her gleaming demure smile, silver earrings and golden heart, Grace is a parent's dream daughter: She loves fish and cauliflower, English class and jump-roping. She helps bathe Joseph and Teresa's newborn biological daughter.

"I consider her my little sister," Grace says. "When the baby cries, I caress her." Grace then purrs a lullaby to her in a feathery and enchanting voice. "Oh, Baby, don't you cry," she sings, "You're still a child. We are here for you." Then, suddenly overcome with embarrassment, she smiles and hides her face in the crook of her arm.

"Do you want to see the dress she was wearing the day she came here?" Teresa asks abruptly. "I saved it." She adjusts her nursing baby, pads through the tiny living room overgrown with furniture and disappears into a hallway. She emerges with what looks like a mechanic's rag. "I don't know why I saved it," she says, unfurling a shredded piece of material that was once white as milk.

Grace wanders in from the kitchen and flumps down on a love seat. Nobody is sure how old she is; Teresa thinks around 10 or 11. And nobody outside the family knows she's HIV-positive, not relatives or the neighbors.

"They will hate her," says Teresa. "They will drive her away." That's how strong the stigma is.

Grace used to tell Joseph, whom she's started calling Dad, how hard it was for her real father to bring home food, about the life her siblings led. But now, he says, she doesn't talk about them anymore.

Grace still occasionally sees her biological father. He stops by their house when he's in the neighborhood to pick up his HIV medication. He's even asked Joseph and Teresa to take Grace's sister.

Joseph and Teresa, unemployed, living in a tiny house packed with kids, are strongly considering it.

* All names have been changed to protect the identity of the family.

Lane Hartill is the West Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.