Food is not the only thing needed to end child hunger and malnutrition. Another invisible nutrient is love. In the second of a six-part series focusing on child hunger, Kathryn Cleary speaks to a 19-year-old about his battle against the vicious cycle of hunger and poverty in the Eastern Cape.
It is a chilly Tuesday afternoon in Sun City, an informal settlement built on top of a former dumping site in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape.
Dressed in a pink robe, Momma Sheila Botha sits with big steaming pots of vegetable stew and rice in front of her – almost as if she is a queen on a throne.
Curious faces of children peer around the edge of the blue wooden door of the three-roomed shack, their eyes wide open on top of little masks, focused intently on the pots of food.
The number of eyes increase and soon enough fingers latch onto the door frame.
Seeing the eyes and fingers starting to add up, Botha bangs the metal soup ladle on the side of the stew pot and barks at the children to form a queue outside.
“Social distance!” she yells.
Botha feeds roughly 90 children in Sun City twice a week through her pop-up soup kitchen, a community-led and supported initiative.
Before the soup kitchen, the kids were digging through rubbish looking for small things to eat, she says.
The economic destruction from the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown has hit this area hard.
One of these young people is 19-year-old Butho. Having struggled with malnutrition for much of his life, he looks much younger.
One of the last of the children to be served, he sits quietly inside Botha’s home on a large comfortable chair to eat.
For Butho, this food is his only meal for the day and could be his last for several more.
He eats slowly and purposefully before returning outside to find a sunny spot on a decommissioned donkey cart in Botha’s yard.
An aspiring TV star
He shares with Spotlight his dreams of being on television someday. But in order to do this, he says, he has to finish school.
Butho has completed Grade 11, but with little support from his family or community he did not continue to Grade 12.
“I was almost close to being done with school,” he says, “but my [parents] do nothing.”
“When [I] fall, who will pick me up? No one. You must pick yourself up!” he laughs.
“How can I focus on my future when there’s no support from my family? My own family is like fighting a war.”
“If I can tell you my whole life story from A to Z, you won’t believe it,” he says.
Born into extreme poverty and parents who he says prefer the bottle to anything else, he questions why he is even alive.
“I ask [my parents], why did you even bring me into this world if it’s just going to be like this,” he says.
When he was younger, he found solace and safety with his grandmother, but she passed away in 2014. He now lives with one parent and an older sister in a squatter camp. “Over there,” he points.
Hunger is a daily reality for Butho, but has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown.
Like many young people in his community, Butho is unemployed.
Before the lockdown period, he relied on piece-jobs collecting wood or metal scraps for money to buy bread and other food items. But the lockdown seems to have decimated this informal economic sector that he and many others depend on.
“When I’m hungry, I just feel like going to sleep. Crying will do nothing,” he says.
With little for him at home, he visits Botha nearly every day in the hope of a meal, but perhaps more importantly, love.
“She has love,” he says, holding his hands pressed against his heart. “That love that parents have. My goal is for life to be about peace and love,” he says.
“All the time I ask social workers for help, all the time, all the time. They say I must come and complain [but] no one wants to help me [and] I don’t know why,” he says.
Treatment for HIV and TB
Last year Butho was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB) and spent several months in hospital. His parents’ visits only caused him pain, he says.
“But the nurse told me, don’t cry, it will only make it worse,” he says gazing towards the ground.
“But,” he whispers, lifting his head suddenly, “they say you must suffer to success, ne?” A slight smile spreads across his face, growing almost unnoticeably.
He takes his TB treatment every morning and night with his “milkshake” – a nutritional supplement – a type of porridge he receives from a local clinic. Butho has also been on ARVs for four years.
“They say this thing is forever, but [if] I take the tablets I’ll never die,” he says.
When asked about solutions to child hunger, he provides a simple answer. “Love and support.”
The government has no idea what’s happening on the ground in my community, he says, and that children need love and support as well as food. If the government could formalise small pop-up soup kitchens, like Botha’s, perhaps the situation could improve, he says.
Butho exhales deeply. “Peace, love and immortality,” he says, getting up from the cart. He sets off “over there”. Back home; back to his “war”.
**Butho’s name has been changed to protect his identity and privacy.
*When kids go hungry is a six-part series looking at the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown on the nutritional status of children in South Africa. This series is supported by Media Monitoring Africa as part of the 2020 Isu Elihle Awards.
*This article was produced by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest.