The life of a child in poverty
Living a life in poverty is not always what we imagine. We read about it, drive past it, see it on social media and television but until you have spent time in the heart of it, the reality is far from the pictures.
If one is used to a certain lifestyle; if a warm bed, indoor plumbing, basic appliances and meals on demand are your reality then the world of poverty is beyond your understanding!
The reality is that nothing is normal, nothing is easy, nothing is as we know it. The rules of the game are not the same.
The most common misconception about a life in poverty is that it can be compared to normal reality:
But why do they keep having children when they can’t feed them?
Don’t they want better for their own children?
If school is free, why don’t they just make the effort?
They are there because they choose to be!
They’re too lazy to look for work!
Well, if they don’t want to finish school, how do they expect to do anything with their lives one day!
These are just some of the judgements I hear from people every day when I discuss what I do.
Their reality is far from ours. It is bigger than what I can explain in a single blog post – it can fill a book. Perhaps several! In fact, that’s what I’m working on. Poverty explained to those born beyond its vicious grip. But for now, all I can do is explain it in bite size portions and hope it inspires others to be a part of the solution instead of holding its victims hostage to comparison.
The average child bearing age in the settlement is between 12 and 16. The average adult has no more than a Grade 3 education (the equivalent of a 9 year old in the real world) except that their Grade 3 doesn’t guarantee that they can even write their own name. Women have few rights and are preyed upon by men who are entitled to use violence to discipline their wives/ partners. Rape by your partner or spouse is not considered rape but your duty. Condoms are entirely at the man’s discretion. Oral birth control is unavailable and even if it was available, the adults are not all mature enough to remember to take it on time or daily. The nearest free primary health clinic requires public transport which is only available three times a day and at a cost that an unemployed person just cannot pay. The primary healthcare clinic is primarily for family planning, Tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS medication and referrals to state hospitals. For general illnesses the medication is usually the same: paracetamol and/or penicillin. Perhaps an anti-itch or antibacterial cream. Mental health is not ever looked at. Dentistry is the removal of problem teeth.
If you’ve had a tough day, if you are stressed or just need some relaxation from your labour-intensive existence – well, the only option is some cheap wine or cheap drugs. There is no access to even the most basic of relaxation such as a walk on the beach – how would you get there? Movies? What are those? A night on the town – with what money? Wine, beer, marijuana or Tik (Methamphetamine based crystals smoked in a “lolli” or glass tube) are the only semi-affordable escapes from a very harsh reality. It makes you forget. It helps you to just have some fun, a laugh with friends and a moment to forget about the washing, cooking, cleaning, horrid conditions, poverty and hunger. Tik is also an appetite suppressant – if you smoke it, you don’t need to worry about food or hunger pains. Unfortunately it also makes you forget about food for your children…
The most striking example of the “vicious circle of poverty” is the children born into this life.
I call it the lottery of life: No-one chooses on which Continent, in which country, which language, which parents or which environment they are born into. Some of us were fortunate enough to be born to loving parents, comfortable lives, good neighbourhoods and with all our human rights fulfilled. Others are not so lucky. Just as we didn’t choose our parents, so those children had no say about theirs.
When you are born to an uneducated Mom who is unmarried and underage, you start life off with a serious deficit. Perhaps she is impatient with you, gets annoyed when she has to stay home with you instead of being with her friends. Perhaps she is depressed and tired all the time and doesn’t feel like feeding you. Perhaps she wasn’t allowed the option of termination and she feels she is stuck with you, you came along and changed her world for the worse. You are holding her back, bugging her, making demands on her, ending her youthful happiness and forcing her to do constant chores and hard work.
Chances are you don’t feel loved, you don’t form a bond, you don’t learn to trust. Why should you? Your most basic needs were not met. Feeds didn’t come when you were hungry, crying wasn’t soothed by a loving touch or tender embrace. You get beaten for being annoying or demanding. You are never taught about feelings and you are certainly not entitled to any of your own. At the whim of your hormonal, teenaged Mother, you can get a beating without any explanation or reason. She has no money. She has to constantly struggle to afford the basics such as diapers, perhaps formula if she couldn’t breastfeed, clothes, blankets… She tells you all the time how expensive you are and how she has to struggle to care for you. How you should be grateful and less demanding. How you ruined her life.
Perhaps your Mom turns to a glass of wine to forget her sorrows. Perhaps she passes out drunk and you are left to fend for yourself, entertain, dress and feed yourself – perhaps you are no older than 3 years, or if you are really unlucky, perhaps you are still an infant. Left to cry from hunger, cold, loneliness…
She drinks more and more often, she forgets to cook, doesn’t do the washing, doesn’t wash you or clean the house. She doesn’t wake you up for school, doesn’t have clean clothes for you to wear anyway so you are forced to spend another day inside the tiny shack you call home. A shack with no windows, no natural light or ventilation. A shack filled with the family’s single makeshift bed and a broken chair or two. No toys to keep you occupied or stimulate your mind. You had better be quiet anyway, you know by now what questions lead to and you still have bruises from the last time you woke her when she had a hangover. So you sit quietly, patiently waiting to see in what mood she will be when she wakes up.
This is how you grow up. The only role models, only adults you see and love are those who live a hopeless life of struggle and substance abuse. They are not above crime to get their next fix. In fact, they often get you to take things that are not yours as you are less likely to be suspected of such a crime. If you are caught, you have to accept the beating or risk much worse punishment when you get home.
Your morals are skewed, your role models teach you violence and thieving, you are responsible for your own survival. How could your mind or thought process ever be compared to that of a person raised in a loving home? This is your reality, you know of no other way.
Until you reach your teenage years. You meet a boy. He is nice to you, he tells you that he cares for you, tells you he loves you. He takes you out with him, makes you feel special. You dream that just maybe he will take you away from this. He buys you drinks and tells you that he wants to show you real love… You are uncertain but you are not going to risk loosing your prince. You do as he wants.
Before you know it, at the age of just 14 years you miss your period. You know something is wrong but you ignore it. You are scared. You tell him your fear but suddenly his love is withdrawn, he shouts at you, maybe even beats you. He starts taking another girl to his favourite places and your worst fear is realised. You are pregnant with a child no-one wants. Your elders are angry, your boyfriend abandoned you. Your Mother kicks you out, she doesn’t want to raise another ungrateful, crying baby! It was your doing so you have to deal with it.
With incomplete education, at the tender age of 14 you give birth to a baby. It cries all the time. You feel so helpless, lonely and discarded. You find yourself impatient, angry, resentful. This crying, demanding baby changed everything. Your family is angry, your community judgemental, your boyfriend left you. If it wasn’t for this baby, you would have still been happy… Instead you hurt, you have to wake up every two hours, there is suddenly a lot of washing, diapers needed, dirty bottles and expenses such as baby formula. Who needs formula anyway, you can’t go all the way to the shops – they are far away. The baby will have to wait for now.
You turn to the occasional drink, just to feel like a person again. What’s so wrong with that? Your Mother did it and you turned out just fine. Besides, you only want one drink. You only have money for one anyway. What’s the worst that can happen? And so you feel better for another blissful afternoon. Until one doesn’t do the trick anymore.
This is the reality for many. Many more than you know! Why are these children not removed? Why is no-one doing anything?
They are hidden in the belly of remote or rural areas, they are unaware that they have rights, they don’t go to school so no teacher picks up on a problem. They never see a doctor. The overworked clinic sister sees so many like them, it becomes normal. Besides, your Mom behaves like a perfect angel when she is in public with you. There is no sign of abuse and she certainly won’t admit to it anyway. There are only so many social workers, only so many foster care facilities and only so many resources but there are too many of you. Besides, your mom will have more children, perhaps she already has more and no-one can take you along with your 3 or more siblings.
So where do we start? How do we help? What can be done?
I asked the same question… I tried to help with food parcels, they were sold to buy wine and I found I made the problem worse. Mom was drunk twice as often and the children still didn’t have food. I planted vegetable gardens but the worst affected children’s parents were uninterested in participating. The parents who did participate were good parents, their children ate reasonably well. I couldn’t punish these children because their parents sold the food and refused to grow crops. They were the worst off!
I needed a safe place to keep them. A place where they could receive a cooked meal, even if it was one balanced, cooked, lovingly prepared meal for the day – it was better than the alternative. Instead of walking around under-clothed, shoeless and unfed in an environment not conducive to their safety, they would have a loving environment where they received both breakfast and lunch. Where adults took care of their basic needs. Where if they were found filthy, they would be lovingly bathed. Where they could explore, play, learn and grow in warmth and safety. Where, if they had a medical emergency, they could be taken to see a doctor.
A place where violence is replaced with reason, neglect replaced with abundant love and praise. This was my dream. This was what I wanted. Where the behaviour of their parents was not the only example they saw.
Perhaps if I show them love, if I gain their trust and show them that they matter, then they will have a better chance to think for themselves and a better chance to make it in the school system. Maybe they will finish Grade 7 instead of just Grade 3. Perhaps they will look back at my example one day when they become parents. They will remember how it feels to be praised and hugged and perhaps they will do that with their children. Perhaps they will place a higher value on education and strive to provide it to their children. Perhaps they will understand that love is the way, not violence and neglect. Perhaps they will be less likely to fall for that guy with his cheap intentions and pretty lies because they know what true love feels like, they have been held and hugged and cuddled.
Perhaps I won’t change the path of every child, perhaps not even the majority.
But just maybe I change the path of one. Perhaps the others will be slightly better parents and I will have an even better chance with THEIR children one day. Perhaps when I am still there with grey hair and a big heart they will finally understand that they matter to someone. Perhaps then the change will be evident and I will have sparked a change for future generations.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and I will certainly not change the fate of hundreds of children in a few short years but persistence will yield results down the line – it’s better than doing nothing! It’s better than driving past and looking the other way. It’s better than being one more person who looks down at these dirty children and judges their parents. Perhaps love can win the fight.
Sustainability is the key to realising my dreams. If I can get the preschool running perfectly, if I can train the unemployed women I hired for their sober habits and love for children, then they will be empowered to teach. I can be around to oversee the running and move on to the next phase.
Perhaps if the preschool is doing well, I can do something for the generations of youth I missed. Perhaps I can teach them some basic skills to increase their employability or just teach them to do something productive that can be sold. Something that will create an income so they can put food on the table.
Perhaps then I can start a Youth centre. I can keep the children stimulated and distracted from morning until bedtime. I can teach them skills, sports, life skills. I can teach them about teenaged pregnancy, STD’s, about their rights. I can teach them to make a CV, to read a book for fun, to be young. I can show them that there is fun beyond crime, beyond alcohol and premature sex.
Maybe then I can change the future of even more families, change the course of their lives for the better.
Not perhaps – I know I will. I am driven to give it my all. I owe it to those beautiful babies whose innocent eyes looked into my soul and claimed it. I am theirs and they are mine.
I know it will happen because I know that there are more people out there who will help me to make this change. It may take a while but it has already started! It has grown and flourished and it is beautiful. Two groups of children have left the preschool and already show an improvement in their academic abilities. The third group will be even better prepared. They will be better prepared because they had more resources than the groups before them, more stimulation.
In a few years, the children will have exposure to as much as their middle class peers. They will have access to sport, dance, martial arts, music, tutoring, healthcare, better nutrition, praise, self-esteem and love. They will flourish and they will grow.
All of this is made possible through the assistance of sponsors, donors and people who care. Their donations contribute to growth and prosperity. It contributes to paying the three preschool teachers and providing them with the means to feed their own children. It contributes to purchasing diapers, food, toiletries, cleaning supplies and educational resources. It pays for medicine when the children are ill, toothbrushes and toothpaste to provide them with basic dental hygiene. It pays for fencing to keep them safe, grass for them to run barefoot on, wooden poles to build them a climbing structure. It pays for toilet cubicles and toilet paper. It pays for hand soap. It pays for a new classroom for extra children or a daytrip to the aquarium.
Your help is what enables me to help these children prosper.