Yesterday we went to a social function in Zomba organized by Yoneco. The main focus of the gathering was on the soccer matches between local children’s teams. Enthusiastic fans of the playing teams had gathered all around the sandy soccer field. To make the scene even more alive, there were performances by the Yoneco children’s band and the cultural troupe, who addressed issues like HIV/Aids and abuse through dancing and singing. During the afternoon Dennis ran into a young boy; let’s call him Happy. He was amongst a little group of children who were very keen to pose in front of our camera. Happy didn’t particularly stand out in the group; just like the other kids he wore ragged clothes, looked quite sandy and didn’t speak English very well. Happy was one of the many kids who came to the soccer match without a grownup or guardian. He insisted on doing ‘Bruce Lee’ poses for the pictures. A little later, Dennis saw Happy hanging around our car and started a conversation with him. They played a game of Bawo together and Happy beat Dennis royally within a minute. Dennis came back to the tree where I was sitting with a few Yoneco members to tell about his defeat. Happy also came over to introduce himself. I asked him about the bandage around his ankle, which looked very dirty. With the translation of Michael, the manager of the women and children’s programmes of Yoneco, I learned that the bandage had been on his ankle since Thursday. Happy told us that he got injured with an axe when he was chopping wood and that it didn’t hurt that much. Since I had clean bandages in our first aid kit in the car, I asked him to take the bandage of. Without even twitching his face, we saw him ‘tear of’ a big piece of greenish flesh which was stuck to the nasty bandage. The removal of the bandage exposed a deep and pussy flesh wound, which hadn’t healed a bit since the injury came to be. You can only imagine what horrible infections Happy could have suffered, had the wound not been treated. And from the sight of him (dirty clothes, no shoes and an almost cracked skin) it was not difficult to conclude that it would be impossible for the boy to keep this wound clean himself.
We decided to take Happy to the public hospital in Zomba. Michael came with and explained to us it might become quite difficult to get help there, since it was a Sunday. “They only deal with acute, life-threatening cases on a Sunday. Besides, a lot of the staff only work here for the paycheck at the end of the month, not because they want to help people”. Having dealt with this sort of attitude amongst civil servants in South Africa more than once, we said we wanted to give it a go anyway. During the trip to the hospital we learned that Happy’s parents had deceased and that he lived with his older brother in a shack about 5 kilometres away from the place we had met him. His brother was away for work. Happy told that this happens often. On such days he had to provide for his own meals and it would happen on a regular basis that he would go to sleep without even one meal in his stomach. Happy also told us he didn’t go to school anymore. Once we got to the hospital, Michael’s fear about the attitude of hospital staff became evident. They were reluctant to even take a single look at Happy’s foot. “You know you are not supposed to come to the hospital on Sunday, but on a Monday”, they addressed the boy. “That’s according to our schedule and you have to stick to our schedule”.
Considering all of the above, it is clear to me that Happy is being abused and deprived of his rights. But by whom?
Let’s first take a look at Happy’s caretaker(s). They are the first people to look at when you are talking about Happy’s right to grow up in a safe and caring (family) environment, his rights to food and water, medical attention and education. You can wonder why a boy of Happy’s age and size was working with an axe in the first place. Was there not an adult around to monitor the child while he was using such equipment? Why would a child be given the responsibility to chop wood? Why isn’t his caretaker making sure that his wound was attended to and that he goes to school every day? How can it be that a child of his age has to provide for his own food? Visiting his home today, we learned that Happy has been living with his older brother Matthew (not his real name) since 3 months. Strictly speaking they are cousins (their respective mothers were sisters), but in Malawian cultures they are considered brothers because their mothers have the same blood. Matthew gave us much information about the current and past living situation of Happy. They live in a small house/shack together. To be honest, you cannot call this a proper house. It’s a dark, small building with hardly any furniture or living utilities. They sleep on ragged mats on the floor and there’s no kitchen or bathroom (since there’s no running water or electricity in the house). Reasoning from my Westernized point of view, it’s a place where you wouldn’t even put animals in to live. Seriously, if you would keep pigs or goats in such a place in Holland, you would get fined for animal abuse. Yet, here in Malawi, this house apparently should be sufficient to raise a 14 year old boy in.
Matthew is battling to keep his head above water. He is taking his responsibility for Happy seriously. Coming from central Malawi, he was send to Zomba by the family because Happy’s older sister– who looked after him after their mother died in 2006- had problems with him, being that she accused Happy of associating with witches and witchcraft. Witchcraft is huge problem in Malawi and people have an intense fear for it, which is pretty understandable if you consider consequences as children ending up killing their own parents and children losing their private parts.
Matthew shows a loving attitude towards the boy. Yet he has very few means to provide him with everything he needs. With his job at the water department, he has to work at least 6 days a week for a paycheck of 5000 Kwacha per month (about 25 euros). Considering the prices in the normal supermarkets here, which are of almost an European level, it seems impossible to feed 2 people of that wage. When addressing that, Matthew admits it happens regularly that they only have 1 small meal a day, or sometimes none. The neighbours are generally not keen to help them out on such days. Matthew also gave us the worrying news that Happy was born with HIV. He does make sure that his CD4 count is examined regularly and he presented us with the health passport that the clinic uses to update his health-status. Happy is still healthy enough to stay of ARV’s. It is therefore extra important that Happy upholds a healthy lifestyle and has access to nutritious foods and a clean living environment.Concerning the issue that Happy does not go to school anymore, Matthew comes up with a number of reasons. He can’t buy the needed textbooks, Happy doesn’t have proper clothes to wear to school, he has to walk a long distance to get there.
Now, aware of all this background information, can we state that Matthew is abusing Happy? In my opinion this is a no. At least, he’s not deliberately abusing Happy and denying him his basic rights for food, a safe living environment and education. If you would look at the older sister that used to care of Happy, I think you could answer the question differently. By publicly accusing him of witchcraft and therefore refusing to take care of him, she did not only deny her responsibility to look after him, but also condemned him to public humiliation and stigmatization and possible life danger. On the other hand, I believe that Matthew can do more to fight for the rights of the child in his care. Michael has agreed with Matthew that he will go and talk to the headmaster of the school, to make sure that Happy will enrol a.s.a.p. in the standard where he ended in. He also agreed with Matthew to take him to the clinic every day, to have his injury looked after and the bandage changed. Furthermore, he will have to make sure that when he is away for work, Happy is looked after as much as possible and provided with food.
Now, what role is there to play for people living in the same community and the local chief? Can you call on their responsibility if they leave a neighbouring child to starve, while most of them have the greatest challenge in making sure their own children are fed every day? Child-headed households are on a huge rise in Malawi, one of the reasons being that (extended) family members are more and more declining to take up children of deceased parents or siblings as their own. I understand that things are never so black and white and that, because people are dying by the minute which is creating insane numbers of orphans, it’s not always evident that people willingly take the responsibility for these orphans. That being said, it is still difficult to comprehend what is going on in these communities and how adults sometimes seem to act as if children are responsible for themselves. Children are being treated as adults and given the responsibilities of adults. Driving and walking through Jali, a rural area outside of Zomba, we saw 4 year old kids walking on the side of the road with 1 year old or even younger siblings on their backs, just like a mother would. They would buy groceries or kill rats in the fields to eat them for dinner, with no grownups to be seen. Another 10 minutes driving down the road it became clear that most of the adults in the area where hanging around a beer-hole, dancing, singing and getting totally wasted. It’s quite common to have young, dressed-up girls from the age of 8/9 years old hanging around the entrance of such places to attract male customers. It makes you even more worried what will happen to the children, who are left alone during the day, when their drunken parents, brothers and/or neighbours come home in the evening and sleep in same room as the child.
Within such communities, the local chief has a huge say in everyday-life issues. They often have more authority than a police-officer would have. You can imagine that due to that authority, these chiefs can have a huge influence on people in how they manage their household and treat their children. Unfortunately, when addressing this possibility to improve the situation of children like Happy through the existing cultural structures, the stories that are most prevalent are about chiefs ‘settling’ sexual abuse cases with the perpetrators family giving the family of the victim a goat or something or advising parents to punish their disobedient children by burning their hands or feet. I believe that there is a clear responsibility for communities and their (informal) leaders all over the world to look after the children that live amongst them, especially when the parents fail to do so. A community has a shared responsibility to provide these children with love and care and opportunities, rather than just leaving them figuring out their lives on their own. Children need adults to learn from them and to provide them with safety and care.
You can also call on the responsibility of the hospital staff, whom we had to convince into treating Happy’s injuries. Salient detail: a few meters away from the receptiondesk, there was a Unicef poster on the wall describing different forms of child-abuse, one them being negligence of the medical needs of a child.What about practising what you preach? As we were told before, many people in these kind of jobs are only in it for the pay check at the end of the month, not because they are passionate about helping people.This became painfully obvious when you looked around in the wards of the hospital. The floors and beds were flooded with sick women and children, but nowhere around was any hospital-staff to be seen. Six nurses were sitting behind their reception desk, chatting, reading and listening to music, but not looking after the patients in the hospital. Medical supplies laid all around in a big mess and the wards looked like they had not been cleaned in ages. Fortunately for Happy, there was Ernest. While Dennis and Michael were discussing with the staff about whether they were going to help Happy or not, and I was about to burst out of my skin with anger, Ernest approached me and quietly told me to get Happy and walk with him to the examination room. Ernest turned out to be a very pleasant exception amongst the nurses and treated Happy’s injury professionally and with a warm and caring attitude towards the young boy. Ernest made sure that Happy’s rights for medical attention were met that day!
Maybe we should call on the responsibility of the (local) government and council who allow children to grow up under such harsh conditions. Like I explained before, the house that Matthew and Happy live in isn’t contributing to a safe and protected living area for Happy. It’s even impossible to lock the door of the house. Why isn’t social welfare intervening? Why isn’t local government making their services to improve their living situation more accessible for Matthew? We asked Matthew if he had ever called on the help of civil services, but he declined stating that he has no knowledge of any help whatsoever being available for them. While there is an option for him to, for instance, apply for a scholarship to finish his secondary school and therefore improving their livelihood. Should local government state and enforce a stricter policy about the minimum (safety) requirements for houses people live in?Or would this only contribute to even more people living on the street? In a perfect world you would expect the local services to help the people who are not in a position to meet such requirements, but unfortunately daily life in Malawi is far from perfect. Regarding the government’s budget statement for 2011/2012 earlier this week, vice-premier Banda concluded that the government is as good as broke. The government intends to raise taxes on daily groceries such as food and dairy and wants to lower the tax-free income from 12.000 Kwacha to 10.000 Kwacha. According to Banda in today’s newspaper, these measures will mainly effect the poorest of the poor. That means households like that of Matthew and Happy. Additionally, president Bingu is getting on the bad side of international donors, such as Great Britain. After the leaking of critical opinions about Bingu’s policy and government of the country from the side of the highest British commissioner in Malawi, Bingu had him escorted out of the country. Leading to the withdrawal of the financial aid of the British. Since Bingu is convinced that Malawi is capable of dealing with its problems on its own, this does not particularly attract big international funders to invest in Malawi. Even Madonna, who adopted 2 children from the country and has been an active ambassador for aid in Malawi, has stopped her investment in an academy for girls (although honestly that wasn’t Bingu’s fault). Looking back at the living situation of Matthew and Happy, Malawi is clearly in no position to deal with the problems of families like theirs on its own. Does this not imply that Bingu and the government are obligated to actively seek and welcome every help they can get to improve the lives of Malawi’s citizens?
You can also wonder which role we ourselves, as an international community, can play in improving the lives of children like Happy. While Happy is worrying whether if he will have a meal that day, children on the other side of the world are worrying if they will get an IPad2 or the newest type of shoes. Is that the kind of world we want to live in? Shouldn’t we screaming out in anger and demand that this is NOT the way we want children of our world and kind to grow up. A well-known saying from the great Madiba himself states that there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than by the way its children are treated. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that he is only calling on the responsibility of the particular (impoverished) communities that children are living in. We are all responsible for the way children all over the world are treated. So, for instance, if we decide we are ok with buying a shirt which was fabricated through child-labour just because that shirt is cheaper than one that was fabricated in a more sustainable way, we are all contributing to the fact those children are deprived of their natural born rights! Don’t be ignorant and don’t close your eyes for the role you can play yourself in improving the lives of children like Happy.
Happy never asked to come into this world. He didn’t ask for the horrible disease he is carrying in his body and he never asked to grow up without his parents. Neither did he ask to live under the harsh conditions that he is living in now. If Happy had a loud voice, which of the parties mentioned above could he turn to and hold accountable for the way he is forced to lead (or maybe you could even say ‘endure’) his life? The possibilities to make his life a happy and healthy one are there, but is going to provide this for him? Who should he turn to for help to improve his life? Who feels responsible and acts on it?
I applaud and admire people in organizations like Operation Bobbi Bear and Yoneco who have decided, without being asked to do so, to take up a responsibility to improve the lives of children every day. Every single day they give everything they’ve got to fight for the rights of these children and give them a voice. They enforce and assist all the parties that are mentioned above in taking their responsibility for children like Happy. If we would all try and take a little of the courage, passion and love that these inspirators show every day, and use that to open our eyes and really see children like Happy, I bet the world can be a totally different place.
Note: Dennis and I have decided we’re going to support Happy and Matthew. For a total amount of about €250, we can send Matthew to school, improve his opportunities and therefore the livelihood of Happy as well as Matthew and his future children. The people from Yoneco will keep us updated on their progress. The reason why I am adding this to this blog is because I want to ask to you to think about the great things that you can do with just a little effort/money/time! You can support organizations like Bobbi Bear and Yoneco (look on their respective websites to see how) or go and volunteer in a country like Malawi or South Africa, to see, feel and hear it yourself. I promise you it will never let you go! If you feel inspired and you are looking for suggestions on how to do this in Malawi, South Africa or anywhere else for that matter, inbox me on firstname.lastname@example.org or post a message on my facebook.