Trick of fate, and this could be YOU

The Simple Things
There are many things we sometimes take for granted. Forget about the money, the fashionable clothes, the sleek cars, the latest tech gadget and the three-story houses. Think basic: a warm, nutritious meal, a dry shelter, knowing how to count from 1 to 10, having someone you can turn to in times of need, and being offered a chance to improve and get to know yourself.

 Day of the African Child
South Africa’s fight against apartheid is one which is well-documented and acknowledged by many. One striking feature of that struggle is the role played by black school children in Soweto who took to the streets in 1976 in order to protest against the poor quality of their education and to demand the right to be taught in their own language. Hundreds of young boys and girls were killed by security forces and many more perished in the subsequent weeks to the march. The Day of the African Child, which falls on June 16 every year, was initiated by the then Organization of African Unity (currently the African Union) in 1991, and has since been celebrated in honor of the bravery of those young souls and as a testament to the value and promise of the African child. This year, the focus is on street children, under the theme “All Together for Urgent Actions in Favour of Street Children”.

Security guard attempting to relocate street children in Accra, Ghana.

Africa’s Street Children
By UNICEF’s definition, a street child is any child who a)  lives in an urban setting, b) has weak/non-existent family ties, c) is forced to develop survival strategies,  d) has come to regard the streets as a place for socialization e) faces specific major risks. While there are pockets of affluence in many African counties – think Bill Gates meets Oprah meets Mo Ibrahim – the majority of Africa’s children – a staggering 25% of the global child population, as per the FAO’s estimates – live in extreme hunger and usually, below the poverty line ($1.25/day). The estimates are probably more dismal when it comes street children.

In Ghana, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly has done a “good” job of clearing major streets of hawkers and street children. Now one has to wonder – where exactly have the street children relocated to?  The Osu Children’s home abuse scandal in late 2010 highlights a key defect when it comes to checks and balances for programs purported to protect and provide basic necessities for orphans, street children and other vulnerable African child groups. Many-a-street-child is subjected to human predators who unleash a plethora of increasingly innovative mechanisms for exploiting children: physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse, it’s all there.  I daresay that the Oliver-Twist-gets-rescued scenario doesn’t play out too often in most African societies, although the community is usually charged with taking care of vulnerable and orphaned children.

In late April I went on a work-related field trip to the Agbogbloshi market here in Accra – which, as it turns out, has one of the biggest onion markets I’ve ever seen – and was approached by a kayayo or woman (more like girl) porter. Thinking I was shopping, she offered to carry my purchases. I explained to her in Dagbani (language spoken predominantly in Northern Ghana) that my colleagues and I weren’t buying anything, and thanked her for her offer. Visibly astounded that I spoke the same language as her, she reported excitedly to her peers that “Madam” understood their language. Now, I hardly regard myself as a “Madam” by any standards. For one thing, I’m not married and for another, it just sounds too formal, even coming from a French speaker who might use it to follow protocol. So, I explained that I’m no “madam”, and of course I speak the language since “I’m one of you”. I think my statement rattled her more than the fact that I spoke Dagbani. As far as she was concerned, a young lady like myself who looked like I did (I wasn’t wearing anything particularly fancy – market visit, remember?), was hanging out with a bunch of foreigners, and spoke not just English, but another foreign language (that would be the French), couldn’t possibly be “one of them”. “Just look at yourself, and look at me,” she insinuated.

“You’re right,” I said. “We’re two Dagomba girls who followed (or were led onto?) different paths. But that doesn’t make me any more of a “madam” –  or important – than you.” Now I realize my statement might sound rather naive and somewhat insensitive considering right after I hopped into the air conned company car and went back to the office, but I believe that’s the bottom line: with a trick of fate, the roles could have been reversed. I could have been the young 13-year old (or even younger) who had to leave the only home I’d ever known (most likely a village community in Northern Ghana), trudge down south to the “greener” cities, and endure days carrying items on my head that probably weigh as much as you and I do put together. I, or rather, YOU could have been the one who goes to sleep in open kiosks or sheds only to be woken up rudely by the groping and grabbing of some horny truck driver or trotro driver’s mate who seeks to satisfy his sexual cravings. Either of us could have been the one who, 9 months later, would have the double “pleasure” of taking baby twins with us on our rounds as we try to make enough money for even one meal that day. It could have been me. I mean it quite sincerely when I say that that statement literally plays in my ear every time I so much as see a kayayo.

Moving Forward
So what are we to do? Take and appreciate our blessings as they come? Yes, without a doubt. But that shouldn’t be all. I think its also important to recognize the worth of “poor” persons, street children, orphans and any other group of individuals who our societies have taken to looking down upon for whatever reason. For the simple fact they are human and on this journey called life, as we all are, they deserve respect. And I think this is especially true for children given the culture of respect in many African societies. Besides, the way I see it, they’ve been dealt a “hard” lot in life, but guess what? They are STILL striving. If they haven’t given up, pray tell me what excuse those of us who are relatively better off have? If for nothing else, but for the fact that they bear some of the most difficult trials on our behalf, we need to refrain from looking down on them and thinking they are of no concern to us. Beyond that, I think its our national duty to assist in providing them with the tools and conditions necessary for them to make their way. By this, I don’t mean money thrown at them to appease our consciences – if the Osu Children’s Home scenario is any indication, money and gifts in kind are easily ‘redistributed’ and may not get to the intended recipients. Instead, we should be investing in their education and skills training. Those are invaluable resources that nobody can take away from an individual and that will better stand the test of time in comparison to food and clothing.

So, today as you go through your day, kindly take a moment to count your blessings AND to think of ways you could possibly help improve the street children situation in your respective locality/country. Better still, if you’re already working on something in this regard, let me know and I’ll put some info up as a follow up post to this blog for interested volunteers and participants.

Additionally, if you have any fond memories of growing up in Africa, please do share :). You can also read some of mine :). The Twitter hashtag for the day as put forth by the LiveUnchained Project is #africanchild . Remember, all African children represent Africa’s future. The more well-fed, sheltered, well-educated, confident kids we have now, the better off our entire continent will be. Happy Day of the African Child!