With woollen hats covering their heads from early morning chills, dozens of children troop into a courtyard for a bowl of hot cereal in South Africa’s impoverished Alexandra township.
Most of them have lost parents to AIDS, but thanks to Portia Mongake, popularly known as Mama Portia, they can have a meal or two each day.
After she left her abusive husband 16 years ago, Mama Portia found new meaning in life by assisting those who need help the most in her township.
Each day she feeds hundreds of children orphaned by AIDS — from toddlers to teenagers.
The 52-year-old wakes up at dawn in a courtyard bordered by a church, a row of toilets and her own makeshift house to start preparing food for her big “family.”
“The situation they find themselves in is very hard, and very painful. Those who are living by themselves, it’s a problem, because most of the time they don’t know where the next meal will come from,” Mama Portia said.
“If there’s no food here, then they will sleep without food.”
Around 120 orphans come in for breakfast while twice that number show up for a late lunch served after school. Some eat there, while others take away to eat at home.
“Almost everyday, we eat porridge so that we have something in our stomachs because without anything in our stomachs, we can’t learn. We will be lazy at school,” said Sinah, 15.
Assisted by her daughter and a handful of volunteers, Mama Portia not only cooks but also helps the children with their homework and organizes activities, thanks to donations from local companies and well-wishers.
“We are like a family for them,” smiles Mama Portia, who says she draws strength from her deep faith in God.
She founded the “family” 12 years ago when a friend died of AIDS and she immediately took custody of her four children.
Her initiative is just one of many “mama” family groups that take care of children orphaned by AIDS in a country with almost 6 million people living with HIV and AIDS.
Statistics on poor children in South Africa are staggering. Some 11.9 children out of a total of 18.6 million live in poverty, according to Unicef. More than a fifth of them go hungry.
Some 3.5 million of them are orphans, two million orphaned by AIDS.
About 10.3 million poor children live off government monthly stipends of 270 rands ($32) each, meaning more than a million others do without.
“We haven’t missed a meal since 2001,” said Barry Moyle, a white friend who comes to give Mama Portia a hand. Companies and individuals donate most of the food as well as clothes, blankets and school supplies.
“By the grace of God everything comes, but we need to be organized,” said Moyle, who plans to set up a proper foundation to help with fund-raising.
Still, despite winning an award for her work, Mama Portia faces immense challenges.
She was kicked out of her previous home by the neighbors. Along with her children and volunteers, she now squats in what was supposed to be a public garden next to church, nursery school and doctors’ rooms.
She shares her two-room dwelling, consisting of a kitchen and a living room, with several adults and 10 children — and other creatures.
“I sleep here every day,” said Sophie, Mama Portia’s daughter. “You must come here and experience the rats!”