When hunger strikes
I wish I could describe the harsh reality of someone living in poverty in a way that truly captures the injustice of the living conditions of those unfortunate enough to be born into this life. I wish I could create a poverty simulator that truly allows people to understand the emotional, physical and mental strain put on someone who has no food to eat, very little clothes to wear, limited human rights, little education and a background of generational substance abuse.
I guess the closest way to do that is through my stories about the people who have opened their hearts, homes and minds to me for the last few years. People who have come to accept me as one of their own.
One of those stories is about how a settlement was moved from one unsuitable location to another. It is the story (in part) of being moved from Skandaalkamp to Wolwerivier. A move that took a community from extreme poverty to even more desperate conditions (but in “prettier” houses) and how we are just trying to survive.
It is easy for officials sitting in offices behind desks to make decisions about what is in the interest of the poor. Surely they should be happy to move out of their shacks they have lived in for decades to newly built houses with electricity? Families spanning three generations who had multiple rooms should now share a single roomed dwelling. Grandparents, parents and children in a single room with just about enough space for a double bed and a small bedside table. Understandably the City cannot afford to provide each family with a three bedroomed home with a pool and manicured garden!
Surely though, in a country that has high rates of domestic violence, child abuse, child neglect and sexual crimes against children, there is something wrong with policies that force children to share a bed with substance abusing parents? If the policies dictate that housing can only consist of a single roomed unit that allows children to be witness to parents having sex (an inevitability) and puts them at risk of sexual abuse themselves (by being in the bed of unrelated substance abusing adults), should those policies not be scrutinised for the sake of protecting the rights of those innocent children? Where do these innocent babies escape to when domestic violence erupts? Where is their haven when drunken or high parents are loud, argue, fight or behave inappropriately?
What about even more basic survival? Things such as food.
Skandaalkamp was poor, desperately so! Families had 80% unemployment and the majority of families are single mother families. That has not changed. However, when families were hungry they had the “benefit” of scavenging the dumpsite for discarded food supplies. They had the benefit of subsistence farming and growing their own vegetables. They had space! They could mine the dump for scrap metal which was easily sold to local collectors for cash. The spaza shop had basic items for sale such as basic food, diapers, hygiene products, bread, fruit and vegetables.
Wolwerivier is small. The houses are far away from everything! There is no dumpsite to mine for food or recyclables. No local dealer to sell scrap metal to and no shops to purchase food items or essentials. The prepaid electricity units are sold well over 10 kilometres away with no transport available. Although land was made available for subsistence farming, it is densely covered in invasive alien vegetation. There is no water source nearby and it has not been cleared, subdivided or processed for gardening in any way. With everyday life being highly labour intensive (gathering fire wood, chopping it, making fire, cooking. Hand washing laundry, wringing it out, hanging it up, etc. etc.) and with no light provided at night, there simply are not enough hours in the day to get the land ready for planting crops. There are no tools, no seeds and no assistance.
Just today a grown man who has never asked me for help came to me with a problem. He was clearly embarrassed. He could not even make eye contact with me. He is a proud man who has always worked hard chopping wood to sell in order to provide for his three boys, his hands rough and calloused as proof of his dedication to his sons. His wife passed away two years ago from illness. He has raised his boys alone ever since. He approached me timidly and he could not contain his emotion as the first words came out in a cough and tears silently escaped his eyes. “My kinders is honger” he said (My children are hungry) as he turned to hide his tears. My heart broke. I have seen hunger, I have seen poverty, I have seen desperation. His children have not left their home for two days because they ran out of soap and washing powder. They had no more clean clothes. They were starving. They did not have so much as a slice of bread to eat.
He wasn’t even asking me to buy him food.
He was asking me to help him find a solution! A solution to help him earn an income for him to put food on the table. He can no longer sell his wood as they are nowhere near anyone who would buy it. He cannot scavenge for food. He cannot afford the taxi fare to seek employment – and even if he could – he is illiterate and has no training or experience that would allow a potential employer to give him a chance. He has no CV, no acceptable interview attire or proper speech that would help him find an income.
The reality is that walking door to door would never yield him a job anyway! He would be looked at sceptically by those who would keep the door open long enough or even open the door to begin with. He would be reported as suspicious on every street committee chat group. He would probably be interrogated for walking around in the suburbs or asked to leave in a not so polite manner for being unwashed and covered in poverty.
What are the prospects for a man like this? A Father. A human being with pride, feelings and needs but who wasn’t afforded even the most basic education because he was unfortunate enough to be born into poverty. Because the land he called home was needed to discard the waste created by those who live in the surrounding suburbs. Waste he lived off. Waste more valuable than he is. Waste more valuable than the future or survival of his three sons.
He is not alone. Many families who survived off the vegetables they grew or the items they salvaged and sold to put food on the table are now without regular food. Little children wear thin t-shirts in the freezing cold and go to bed on empty stomachs. They have no preschool yet and are on school break so they are now also deprived of the guaranteed meal they had every day. They play on dusty roads covered in rock without so much as a blade of grass in sight. Shoeless feet in the cold, rocky streets lined with brand new houses.
Meticulous structures that cannot fill your tummy, protect your feet or cleanse your dusty body.
What can a man, a father do when he has no choice in where he lives? When he is too poor to qualify for employment? When he can’t afford the soap or clothes to be presentable enough to be given a chance? How does a man like this feed his children?
His children were born under their Mother’s last name. She did not register their births. They have no birth certificates and he has no proof that he is their biological father so he cannot register them now. He receives no social grants, he does not have an education and his only means of income is no longer available to him.
This is the reality of what happens when people are born poor. They have no voice, no say, no choices. They are not consulted about matters that affect their day to day lives. The expense of new housing is used to justify the lack of foresight, lack of resources and support provided and the lack of access to even the most basic of human survival needs.
A lot can be said about the planning done in offices on behalf of the poor when things such as access to food were not considered.
It reminds me of something said in one of the last community meetings with the City: “Don’t worry, once we have moved you, we will not forget about you”.
I wonder if that will comfort his hungry children tonight?
If you can help in any way (big or small), please contact me:
+27 82 828 9307