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Set me free: how to help children


The cry stopped me in my tracks. A small barefoot boy ran panting after me: 'Hey, tourist, wait!'

I had passed him and his sister earlier as they led a water buffalo down the path beside the Nile. The pair stretched out their hands and said: 'Baksheesh, baksheesh,' in hope of money. Egypt has many children begging.

They follow you down the streets; they chase you through the fields. They ask for food and pens to do their school work; they plead for money.

Some are homeless, others sick, most are simply poor. The lucky ones have full-time jobs; they shine shoes, or sell hard-boiled eggs and cups of tea on trains. In Cairo I spent an hour watching a girl on crutches who was selling newspapers while dodging cars at a traffic lights. Such scenes are common in Third World countries where 14 million children die every year of preventable diseases and malnutrition. A total of eight million children are abandoned because their parents can't support them and another 150 million work full-time - often in appalling conditions.

Child poverty is a tragic sight. But the scale is so enormous it anesthetizes the horror. That evening by the Nile I did not stop.

But now the boy was chasing me. He grabbed my arm. Planting his small frame squarely before me, legs apart, he thrust out his upturned palm. 'Baksheesh,' he said earnestly. 'Please. You have money. I need baksheesh.' His face glistened with sweat. His shirt was rags. He smelled of desperation.

I could not say no. Without hesitation I pulled a bank-note from my purse and gave it to him. His face lit up. Muttering thanks disappeared into the darkness. But even as he ran I had my doubts: was there a better way I could have helped?

When I returned from holiday, it occurred to me that I might sponsor a Third World child. Many aid agencies recommend this form of giving; their ads are everywhere. In Canada alone a quarter of a million people believe that 'changing the world... one child at a time' is 'a practical way to help the world's children'.

A paternalistic instinct in me relished the prospect of being a foster parent. And the regular reports, letters and photos of 'my' child's progress guaranteed value for money; they offered me long-distance intimacy. As one piece of literature says: 'Part of the joy of being a World Family sponsor is that you have a personal link with an individual child. You'll watch like any proud parent as he (she) goes through school, and develops into adult life.' A different leaflet says: 'a child needs to experience the warmth of knowing that another individual cares about him as an individual.'

'What an insult to Third World parents!' said a friend. 'And how will you meet a child's emotional needs from overseas? Just look at the expense of maintaining all the correspondence. Those letters or reports are not for the children - they are a gimmick to attract donors.'

She had a point. Child-sponsorship is big business: World Vision has an annual revenue of over a quarter of a billion dollars. Even their spokesperson, Gary Roebbelen, says: 'Sponsorship is just a very effective way of doing our marketing.'

But I was not totally convinced that child-sponsorship was a bad thing - until I met a couple who were sponsoring a Third World child. After years of correspondence they invited the girl to their country for a holiday. And as a journalist I was asked by the aid agency to interview the child and describe how sponsorship had improved her life.

She was about 14 years-old, huddled in a chair, hands playing nervously with a toggle on her brand-new duffle coat; she had a fixed smile on her face. I asked my first question: 'How is this country different from your own?' I needed a quote for my article. But I knew the answer.

More than 120,000 people had been killed in her homeland over the previous 15 years, thousands of them children. Poverty, unemployment and civil unrest were facts of life and inflation was so high that even to buy a pair of shoes you needed a suitcase of banknotes. Money was being sucked from education and other social services into defence. And things we take for granted, like a clean water supply, had vanished. This child had experienced horrors I could not imagine.

She smiled blankly. The kindly sponsors prodded her for a reply: 'Your country is good, thank you,' she mumbled obediently. The woman beamed: 'We took her to the cinema,' she said with pride, 'and bought her new clothes.' The girl said nothing but kept on smiling. She smiled so hard her face seemed to crack. The indignity of her situation made me cringe: I didn't want to continue. But there was an article to write. And the interview staggered on.

As we talked, I realized that this holiday would do nothing to improve the girl's life. It would not provide better health facilities or sanitation when she returned home. And singling her out for privileged treatment might make her family jealous; it was unfair on the children left behind. Returning to poverty after seeing Western affluence could only make her discontented.

But worst of all was her humiliation - at having to be permanently grateful; beholden for her health and education; beholden for her food and clothing; obliged to write regular letters of thanks to her sponsors. It was wrong to make a child feel indebted for necessities which should have been hers by rights.

Many people forget that children have rights. But the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1959. It states that humankind owes to the child the best it has to give. Children have the right to services like health and education, the right to protection from exploitation - and the right to an effective voice over matters influencing their lives. If we want to help children, we have to try and address these rights.

Father Arnold Grol is a Dutch missionary who has spent his life translating into action the principles underlying Children's Rights. He founded Kenya's Undugu'sor 'solidarity' society - a programme that helps Nairobi's street children by strengthening their communities. I met Father Grol when I was in Nairobi researching Undugu for an article.

He listened to my journalistic questions while running his fingers through his greying hair. Then he glanced at his watch. He had something to show me, he said. And it wouldn't wait.

[image, unknown] It was 11 o'clock at night as we drove across the city to see the ragged gangs of children begging outside smart hotels. Father Grol shook his head and sighed. 'These are not orphans,' he said, 'they beg because their families are poor. Most come from urban slums like Mathare Valley, Kariobangi or Makadara where sometimes half a dozen people live in one cardboard room. The poverty is appalling - thousands of people share a single tap. If you want to help such children you must look at life through their eyes.

Father Grol has been listening to Nairobi's street children for over 15 years; they have directed Undugu programme away from helping individuals - to assisting slum communities as a whole. Over and over again children tell him that they have been abandoned because their parents cannot afford to feed them. Poverty is the source of the children's problems and only community work can address its root causes - or help on the large scale needed.

The car picked up speed. 'There isn't much time,' he said, 'we have a lot to see. I will tell you the Undugu story as we go.'

In 1972 Father Grol noticed unemployed youths roaming the streets aimlessly. They asked if he would start up a club where they could meet and play sports. He did and discovered that they despaired of surviving without any skills. They requested training. So a small carpentry workshop was established - now a technical school which teaches six trades. A 'small business loan scheme' evolved - a spring-board from which apprentices can launch their own business ventures.

But Undugu really got off the ground when it began helping Nairobi's biggest group of abandoned children - 'the parking boys' who for a few coins direct motorists into empty spaces.

From the car window I saw these kids huddled around small fires in alleys and doorways. Some scowled, some waved. A couple were wrestling in the dirt. Many were curled up for the night under sheets of cardboard, already social outcasts although only eight years old. In Nairobi, abandoned girls become prostitutes; boys take to the streets.

Father Grol stopped the car.

'The trouble with most aid programmes,' he said, 'is that they make people dependent. We have to grant them autonomy if we really want to help. That means giving them self-confidence and economic independence: working with people, and not for people, is our aim.'

He turned on the ignition. 'Now I want you to meet some people who deserve your respect,' he said.

On the way to this mysterious destination he told me how the parking boys' project had begun. First Father Grol set up a reception centre in one of the slums - a place with food, a bed and medical care. Then he and the parking boys carried out a survey into the conditions of abandoned children to find out what they wanted, where they came from and why. Many had no home to go to: he opened a house for them in Mathare Valley.

Today a steady stream of ragged boys knock at the reception centre door. They stay for a while and if nowhere else is found for them, they move into one of four community homes. Each is run by the boys themselves, helped by a house-father. Local people drift in and out keeping the boys in contact with the community to which they will eventually return.

'But is there space for all those boys?' I asked. Father Grol shook his head.

'It is better all-round if they return to their real homes. A community worker meets every lad that arrives and together they search for the lost family - we hope that the parents will take the boy back.'

When Father Grol managed to track down parents he made a surprising discovery - 75 per cent were single mothers - many working as prostitutes because of the lack of paid work for women. They could scarcely feed themselves - let alone their children.'

The car stopped outside a small cafe. 'Come in,' said Father Grol, 'Don't be shy'. A group of girls and women greeted us, Sitting around a table we talked about life on the streets. This was the U-Dada club - set up specially to give prostitutes a different means of earning money. It teaches literacy and sewing; they sell the things they make. 'We are not prostitutes because we like it but because we have children to feed and there is no other way, said one woman.

Undugu has enabled slum mothers to create various vocational training centres and women's co-operatives to give themselves economic independence. A sandal-making project, a craft-centre for the mothers of handicapped children and a women's charcoal -retailing co-operative are money-spinners that allow mothers to keep their children at home.

Time was ticking on. We said goodbye. Back in the car Father Grol took up the story of the parking boys: 'They surprised me, he said. 'They asked for education.' So he opened a school run mainly by teachers who have come from the slums.

But for every street child there are thousands more in need. Two other schools have sprung up to help them. The children who attend have long since dropped out of formal education because their families are too poor to pay for school uniforms or shoes. These things don't matter at Undugu. And the schools prepare children for the real world by emphasizing practical skills. Character development and helping each other are high on the agenda: children who can take care of themselves are more likely to survive.

That is what Undugu is all about. Dependence breeds vulnerability. But confident children can take control over their lives. The project gives children self-assurance by listening to them and responding to what they say. It enables large numbers of youngsters to achieve their own goals. And it releases children from poverty helping their communities become economically self-sufficient. Parents develop a means of looking after their children and no longer need aid.

Father Grol stopped the car before he finished talking. He was telling me about the health-care scheme: 'Many slum children get sick from poor diets and a lack of hygiene. A nutritionist and a public health nurse are teaching children and women's groups about these things. His voice tailed off. He put his hands on his lap. It was extremely late and he looked drawn and tired. 'I am getting old,' he said. 'But before I die I would like this community to be fully self-sufficient. That is the only way that we can set the children free.'

1 State of the World's Children, United Nations Children's Fund, 1989.
2 Children Worldwide, Volume 14, International Catholic Child Bureau, 1987.
3 All Work and No Play: Child Labour Today, Trades Union Congress in collaboration with the UK committee tor the United Nations Children's Fund, 1985.
4 Christian Children's Fund publicity.
5 National Charities Information Bureau report, June 2, 1987.
6 The name ot the country and the agency concerned have been omitted to maintain confidentiality.
7 It was first drawn up by Eglantyne Jebb, founder ot Save the Children Fund, in 1929.
8 Undugu Society of Kenya, P0 Bos 40417, Nairobi, Kenya.

New Internationalist issue 194 magazine cover This article is from the April 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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