Life in Africa is a struggle for anyone, but the life of a child is even harder. Imagine, growing up in a world where you lack the very basics in life, food, clean water, medicine, shelter, safety, a bed of your own. Beyond that, there are no toys, no dolls, no footballs, no sweets and treats, at best, a bed of reeds to sleep on. School would be wonderful to attend, the path out of poverty, but there is no money for school fees so you stay home and wait for a miracle, but for most there is none. Life is simply survival, staying alive.
Growing up in Africa
Growing up anywhere brings its share of problems, but growing up in a place like East Africa is a struggle that is beyond imagination. Put yourself into the shoes of an East African child; I should say feet. Most children do not wear shoes, but might wear flip–flops as we call them.
You are fortunate to still be alive at the age of six, many of your friends have died of things such as malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, and the like. The fact that both your father and mother are alive is another miracle. Life expectancy for men is 40 years in East Africa and 42 years for women (rarely do you encounter gray haired men.) Malaria is still the number one killer in East Africa, but AIDS comes into second place. Wherever one goes, one can see the evidence of the ravages of AIDS. Go into any school and ask how many children have only one parent, or no parents and you would be astounded. In a country like Uganda with a population of 20 million, there are as many as 1.5 million AIDS orphans. Yes, there is rebel activity in the north and west of Uganda. Yes, there is malaria and other illnesses. This is the other war, AIDS, the silent killer that sweeps through offices, villages, banks, schools and government institutions. In fact, many businesses refuse to give time off for more than one funeral a month to their employees, since death comes so frequently to families. One of the most secure jobs is to make caskets along Entebbe Road in Kampala; unfortunately there is never a shortage of customers.
So here you are, a child in Africa, living in a small shack, made of sun–baked mud bricks, covered by a corrugated tin roof that leaks whenever it rains. The room is small, yes, the house is one room, and if you are really lucky it will be two. No kitchen, but you have a charcoal stove outside. Charcoal costs about £5 a bag and for some that lasts all month. If you have no money, you must find some wood to start a fire to cook over. The bathroom consists of an outhouse down the path, shared by many families, which everyone will have to wash in. Most Africans bathe using plastic wash–tubs twice a day. A house like that rents for £20 to £40 a month in a city like Kampala, in the slum areas of town. The monthly income of your parents is only about £55 combined. Father works as a night watchman for a well to do family from 7:00 in the evening to 7:00 in the morning. Mother goes off at 6:30 in the morning to work as a maid for some white people from Denmark.
You are a girl of 12 and now you are home alone – well, almost. Father might sleep for a few hours, but then he is off into town seeing if he can come up with some extra work and make a few more shillings for the family. Why are you not in school? Oh, the answer to that one is easy – a girl does not need school, she only needs to take care of the house, find a husband when she is older, have babies, raise a family, cook, maybe work as maid or in a restaurant, but there is no reason to invest in a woman… or so the thinking goes. Mostly the lack of education for girls has to do with economics – the first–born boy is usually sent to school if any money is available.
Your oldest brother left at 7:00 that morning. He had to take a roll of toilet paper to school, since the day before he was scolded for not having any. He also had to take a new broom to class to sweep the classroom and the school grounds after school.
School is expensive. Schools fees are expensive. Besides, school is six miles away and the mini bus costs 50 pence each way. There are many hidden costs that no one talks about at school, but they are so common. Class size is often around 100 students to the room. Mother had to come up with extra money so that your brother could pay the teacher to sit up at the front of the class, where he could hear and learn better. Money had also to be paid to have homework checked and corrected, and if you wanted extra help called tutoring for the P7 exam, there was something extra for that. That is why only one of your brothers goes to school, while the others hang around until maybe some of the uncles and aunts in the family can contribute something for the education of them. That is how it works in Africa – families struggle to come up with the money alone. It often takes combined resources of the extended family to send children to school in most cases.
One of your daily jobs is to look after the little ones. You have to do laundry in two plastic tubs with water that you had to carry in a 5–gallon can up a hill to the house. Not only is there washing, but there is cooking. You do not have to worry about preparing meat, there is no money for that, except a few times a month. The shop is just around the corner from you. No, you can’t ask for a particular cut of meat, you get what is there and the price is the same. You really do not care about that chewy, tough meat anyway, plus it is covered with flies, yuck.
Live chickens can be bought at the market, but they are expensive, costing between £3 and £4. It is only on special occasions that you will get to buy them. It is your job to kill and pluck the chicken clean if your brothers are not around. The main staple of Uganda is matoke (green bananas, mashed and steamed under banana leaves) and posho made from corn flour. Every evening you buy a plastic bag of milk, for immediate consumption, since it would spoil if you bought it during the day. It is sold along the roads by vendors with carts, and if you pick one from the bottom of the pile, it is still reasonably cool. Bread, can also be bought there from the same roadside hawkers who call out what they have for sale, as it gets dark small oil lamps illuminate their wares.
In the mornings, it is your job to head to the market to buy stalks of bananas and some sweet potatoes if any money is on hand. There are also red kidney beans but during the rainy seasons of the year, they may be filled with maggots and you do not like getting your meat and protein that way. Rice is available but you have to pick the rocks out of it since it is no fun chewing on them. It is also very expensive. There are potatoes which you like and sometimes use when you buy beef, but it always comes down to how much money the family has.
The future does not look bright for you. You hear people talking about things getting better, but you have not seen it. Malaria still comes to visit you on a regular basis, there is dysentery, cholera that one has to watch out for, and as you have grown older and developed as a young woman, there is the hidden problem in Africa. Your uncle has been coming around saying things to you, and suggesting that you come to visit him and learn how to be a woman. Yes, things are not getting better for you.
It would be nice to learn how to read and write, but it may never happen. In fact, there are not many in the family that do. There are only two ways out of the slum in which you live. One is to get an education and the other way is what your Aunt Asha is doing – selling herself to white and Indian men who have money and just might take you in as a live in girlfriend. That however is not the way you learned in your church, just up the path from your slum called Eden Revival where they spoke of holiness, right living and faith in God to bring about a future with hope. You have had a lot of hope, prayed a lot, but not seen the bright future, but then God must be busy in other parts of the world.
You like going into town with your mother to Owino market where you see clothes for sale, not that you get many. It has been some time since you last got a new skirt and the detergent has long ago washed out all the brightness that had been there (Omo gets the dirt out but also the color).
You reach down to scratch your feet, and notice that a few more jiggers have lodged themselves in your soles. It would be time again to cut them out, since there was no money to go the doctor and mother did a good enough job with a knife last time.
Fun for you is playing with the other children. Sometimes you go down to the place where the men go to drink the home–brew that some of the women prepared. There you could dance to drums with some the other girls. You liked it and everyone would join in while the old men would talk about yesterday, today and tomorrow, always looking for that miracle to help them out of the slum.
A new lottery had come to Kampala and Uncle Fred had taken all of his salary of £20 and bet it, winning nothing in return. Others laughed about it but you felt sorry for him.
There was something new you had heard about. Some organisation from the UK had set up a little office at the edge of the slum and was signing up children to go to school without school fees. They also provided school uniforms, books, transport and some food. The cost would be paid for a by a family far away and it was called sponsorship. Maybe, just maybe this was true and someone did care about children like you. Maybe there was more to life; maybe there would be a chance, an open door to have hope. Maybe, someone did care.
The reality is that you and I can make the difference in the lives of children in Africa. You can go there like I and many others have done and work amongst them, or you can contribute your money to an organisation that will do so on your behalf. Sponsorship with Abaana costs just £22 a month, with 95% of that being sent to Uganda for your child and their development. The other 5% is retained in the UK to help Abaana find new sponsors to give even more children in poverty the chance of an education.
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