CAPE TOWN, July 10 (JTA) — Israel’s kibbutz system has spawned an unlikely cousin at the southern tip of Africa. An interfaith AIDS program called E. Khaya — “my home” in Zulu — aims to alleviate the devastation wreaked by the pandemic in the province of Kwazulu-Natal with a communal-style setup that includes collective ownership and voluntary membership. Paddy Meskin, a former president of the Durban Progressive Jewish Congregation and a past president of the South African Union of Temple Sisterhoods, has been involved for the past three years in a broad interfaith AIDS program that she initiated along with the World Conference on Religion and Peace. Through this work, it became apparent to her that a group in great need were AIDS orphans, some of whom, at 12 or 13 years old, already were heads of households with sole responsibility for their younger siblings. To meet this need, Meskin conceptualized the idea of a community, which she described as an Africanized version of a kibbutz. “The idea came to me as a result of the kibbutzim that I visited and those that the sisterhood has worked for,” she told JTA. “I really believe that when communities are in great need, this is one of the best ways of pooling the resources that one has.” Kwazulu-Natal is an area of South Africa said to be the hardest hit by AIDS, with more than a million AIDS or HIV-positive patients. The project operates in black rural communities, many of which are severely impoverished, with unemployment rates of between 60 percent and 80 percent and a lack of basic facilities such as electricity and running water. Three community centers are planned, with the first one — in Mavela — up and running since February, and a second in Nyuswa being set up. An important aspect of E. Khaya is communal ownership and the ability for workers to eventually care for the AIDS orphans, Meskin said. Earlier projects controlled by donors collapsed once the donors relinquished control or funds dried up. Citing recent UNICEF and U.N. surveys in support of the project, Meskin said it generally is best to keep the children in their communities, as opposed to institutionalizing them. “In most cases, these orphans have been through tremendous trauma — they have often nursed parents who have died — and this is a way of minimizing it,” she said. There are more than 70 children in Mavela’s nursery, where children less than 6 years old who are not yet at school can be dropped off in the morning. The service is not limited to AIDS orphans; children vulnerable to the disease also are accommodated. “We specifically haven’t separated them ,as this would reinforce the stigma and discrimination” attached to AIDS in the black community, Meskin said. When head-of-household children come to pick up their siblings in the afternoon, they are given a meal. Meskin and her helpers provide seeds, equipment and machinery to children and community volunteers so they can plant crops, ensuring a steady supply of fresh produce. She hopes the surplus will be sold at a nearby market, providing income for the community. Another income-generating project will be the production of bags, simple clothing and educational toys, including puzzles with an African theme. On a recent trip to the United States, Meskin spoke to a number of synagogue sisterhoods that have indicated their willingness to assist in marketing ethnic products. The local sisterhood is specifically involved in one aspect of E. Khaya that provides a “time out” for care-givers, whether they are involved with the AIDS patients or those suffering from other prevalent diseases, such as tuberculosis and malaria. There also is a paralegal program to train individuals to help others access government grants — an uphill battle when most rural inhabitants do not have birth, marriage or death certificates. Either through fund-raising or donations, the sisterhood helps provide food such as rice, milk powder, corn and beans for the 78 children and workers in the Mavela nursery. Together with the Union of Jewish Women, members of the sisterhood regularly undertake the 60-plus-mile journey from Durban to the school to play with the children. While AIDS relief is the program’s primary focus, there are other advantages, Meskin said. “It’s a good way of integrating communities,” she said. “Many of the urban women have never been out to rural communities, many of the rural women have never been into the city. “It’s about learning to live together,” she added. “We still have a lot of things to work through as a result of the years of apartheid.”
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Moira Schneider is a JTA correspondent in South Africa. A law graduate and psychology major, she is the Cape Town correspondent for the South African Jewish Report. She contributes to London's Jewish Chronicle, is a reporter for the Cape Jewish Chronicle and has been published in the Cape Times and Cape Argus.