Melanie Verwoerd

'Suffer the little children'

2016-12-21 08:03

Recently I was in a coffee shop in Cape Town. It was a glorious Sunday morning and there were many families with small children. Across from me, there was a busy little girl in a high chair (her mum later told me she was 18 months old). When the waitress took their order, the little girl announced loudly: “I want a baby chino!” I (and many people around me) laughed as she demanded with increasing urgency her need for a baby chino. It was cute, but suddenly I had a flash back of a visit to Swaziland a few years ago and of a little boy, just slightly older than this little girl, that I had met.

Nothing, not even years of development work, can ever prepare you for the sight of a tiny toddler waddling on his own in the veld. I was working for Unicef at the time and my colleagues and I were driving in a fairly isolated area when we spotted a little boy coming over the hill all on his own. “Is he lost?” I asked as we stopped to give him a lift. He was not. The little 3-year-old boy was an Aids orphan. Both his parents had died and he and his two siblings were now taken care of by their 9-year-old sister.

The Unicef staff explained that he was heading for a tree about one kilometer from his home, where a group of women from the community would arrive every day and cook some pap on an open fire. The little boy knew that this was where he could get food. And so every day when his sisters went to school, he walked there on his own to get his only meal of the day. And he was not the only one. When we arrived at the tree, there were about 30 other children under the age of five. Here a group of women, also desperately poor, fed these little children and if they had time gave them precious hugs.  It was winter and freezing at the time and the children ho were very scantily dressed with holes in their clothes, were shivering and clearly starving. Yet they stood quietly in a row, patiently waiting for their little bowl of food. I asked one of the women why she did this. She replied that she had Aids and hoped that when she died someone would look after her children.

Unicef estimates that globally between 143 million and 210 million children have lost one parent. A staggering 17.3 million children have lost both parents. In South Africa, it is estimated that there are 3.7 million orphans and many more children living with sick and bedridden caregivers. About 150 000 children are believed to be living in child-headed households.

Of course there is nothing wrong with the little girl in the restaurant in Cape Town wanting a bit of warm, foaming milk. But it was a very visible reminder to me of the inequality that children face in our country and world.

As many of us celebrate Christmas in a few days, let us also remember all the millions of children all over the world, who have no one to care for them. As we sit down at tables groaning under the weight of food, let us remember those little children who have to walk to a tree in the veld to find a tiny bowl of pap and sauce. And let us commit to do something – however small it is – to try and make the world a better place for all children.

On a happier note: During the same visit to the tree, I spotted a tiny girl who was clearly very sick. She was just skin and bone and whimpered when I took her onto my lap and slowly fed her. As we left, the Unicef staff and the community women promised to take extra care of her, but I did not have much hope that she would survive.

On my return to Unicef in Ireland we raised funds to assist the women and children and with the money they had built a little brick structure under the same tree, so they could feed the children indoors and also do some basic pre-school training. About a year later, I visited the same spot again. We listened as the children sang songs and recited a few English rhymes. Suddenly I spotted a little girl waving at me. At first I just thought she was friendly, but then it suddenly struck me. It was the little girl from 12 months back. She was beaming and as soon as the “class” was over she ran over to me and jumped into my arms. “Umlungu, you came back!” she said as she hugged me tightly.

I could not believe that she was now so well and even more amazingly that she remembered me from the hour I had held and fed her. But perhaps that is exactly it: if we can all just do a little bit there will always be hope, because if there is one thing I have learnt during all my years in development work, it is that the children will always fight back, if only we can give them a helping hand.

And surely part of the message behind the story of a baby born in a manger amongst the animals is that no matter what the circumstances, every child matters.

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA Ambassador to Ireland. 

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