Councillor an oasis in the desert for vulnerable children

Date: January 1, 1970
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Namibia, 11 April: If you take a trip to the Namib desert, chances are you will pass through the 4000-strong village of Maltahohe in the dry and desolate Hardap region of southern Namibia. If you stop long enough in this village, you will most definitely be accosted by the Ama Buruxa (Nama for “Simply AmazingÀ) Culture group, comprising abandoned children whose beautiful moves are choreographed by their champion, the soft spoken but also “simply amazingÀ Councillor Karolina Pieters.

Like the proverbial oasis in the desert, the children spring out of the dusty planes in their colourful traditional patchwork outfits, their melodious voices rising above the scorching heat as their bodies sway back and forth to the clicks and rhythms of the desert tunes. Pieters has some 382 Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC’s) under her care; nearly ten percent of the village population.
Most have lost one or both parents to HIV and AIDS or gender violence. Cultural activities, Pieters explains, help to make sure the children never forget their roots and remain firmly grounded. They are also a form of healing.  As Pieters introduces each child by name, she recounts their story never once mixing up the details. 
The triplets, Shireen, Sherita and Sheroleen came to the home at the age of six. Now they are going on 16. Six-year-old Paul Aeb, who clings to Pieters and hides shyly behind her skirts, witnessed his father stab his mother to death. Paul Hanse saw his mother kill his father in a drunken stupor in an area renowned for its high level of alcoholism. She is out of jail but the boy is afraid to go home.
Somewhere in the sea of faces that rush around Pieters as the dance troupe finishes its last act and the school bell signals a lunch break is Pieters’ youngest daughter, Raphaelia, so integrated into the crowd that you would not guess she is any different from the rest. According to Ivan Pieters, the eldest of Pieter’s six children and a teacher at the school, “from the time I was a child I knew I shared my mother with other children; I knew she belonged to everyone.” 
A loyal member of the ruling Swapo Party who stopped short of going into exile to join the liberation army because her parents did not want her to “run around with the boys in politics,” Pieters has been a teacher for 25 years and a community activist for as long as she can remember. 
When the 2004 local government elections came around and the party scouted about for women candidates to make good its promise of a “zebra” list – one woman, one man – Pieters came under pressure to run for public office. She did so on one condition, that she“ bring my children into the Council with me” and make them part of the Council’s business. 
The government’s social welfare programme sponsors only six of the OVC’s on Pieters’ books. When the older children perform for tourists, they charge R450 per show; the main source of income for the home. Many of the tourists have been so touched that they have sent clothes, computers and other helpful items from Austria, Germany and the other European countries.
Leveraging her position as deputy chair of the council, Pieters persuaded the nearby lodge to provide a soup kitchen twice a day, five times a week. The Council now assists with transport to get supplies from the Catholic Aids Council based in Mariental, 111 km away.
Pieters formed and chairs a council HIV and AIDS committee that brings together 25 Community Based Organisations with Council members once a month and is spearheading an awareness programme in the community. She has trained as a counsellor and is negotiating with the Ministry of Health to establish a programme for administering anti retroviral drugs for those living with AIDS.
The Chairperson of Maltahohe, Hans Joseph attests to the changes that he has seen since he has been the only male in council with four women: “At the beginning of the term there was no HIV and AIDS committee. They have now developed committees and health care is also being addressed by the women councillors.” Karolina Pieters provides just one of many graphic illustrations of how one woman has literally brought orphans and vulnerable children into the council and forced the council to form an HIV and AIDS committee.
Research conducted in 4 Southern African countries by Gender Links, a Southern African non-governmental organisation specialising in gender, governance and the media, found that when women enter decision-making, the concept, content and form of politics and governance, and the way that they are practiced, begin to change.
Women bring to the table their own unique insights and experiences, and are often most concerned about problems on the ground. Since HIV/AIDS affects women than any other part of society, making HIV and AIDS a council issue is one of the ways in which women are having an impact in local government.
Pieters stresses that as a community activist she is less concerned about power than about making things happen. She reels off a long list of what needs to be done: the upgrading of the squatter camp to an informal settlement; getting sponsorship for the children’s education and welfare; preparing for the regional dance competition; and a campaign against the high levels of alcoholism.
Pieters agrees that it is ironic that out of five members of the council, only one of whom is a man, the man was elected chair. However, she insists that the reason she did not campaign for the post of chair is that as a full time teacher she would not have had the time to be chair as this frequently involves attending meetings during school times.
She adds that other issues to be addressed include unemployment; the council’s seemingly intractable debt, the lights that get turned off and the water level in the area that is always too low. How can a flitting one-day visitor contribute?
“Some toiletries for the children,” she is quick to reply as we drive off to the nearest grocery store.  Karolina Pieters, preferring to ignore the politics and use whatever space she has for the good of her community, clearly shows that even though society often still defers to men, women clearly have the qualities to lead.
Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links. This article, an excerpt from ‘At the coalface: Gender and local government in Southern Africa,” is part of a special series for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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