01 December 2009

Opportunities and the Accident of Birth

The sun was shining and the trees were blooming against the backdrop of the magnificent mountains reaching into the sky. All in all, it was a beautiful morning in a stunning place: Cape Town. School children walked past the windows of the minibus-taxi I was taking to work, laughing and chatting. Further on, I came to a school. The building looked very run down, but its grounds were teeming with children. Later, I started passing the townships. Glancing down a path in between the shacks made of wood and corrugated iron sheets, I saw more children. Some were sitting in a group; a couple were running around. I wondered what they would be doing for the rest of the day.
I thought back to my own easy childhood. I happened to be born into a family which could provide me with shelter, clothing, food, water and an education. Actually, my parents gave me much more than that – there were the numerous toys, outings and holidays too. Of course, I did not truly appreciate any of it; rather I grew to expect it of them. I took a lot for granted. For example, I never realised how great it was to be able to turn on a tap and have clean drinking water running from it. Instead, my demands to my parents would go something like, “I want to drink squash… No not THAT flavour. The other kind… and put fizzy water in it…and ice… and a pink straw...” and on and on and on! I had no awareness that there were other children in the world, who maybe had to walk miles to reach a well just to get some water. Some of the children I later met in Ghana had to do exactly that. They had other chores too, like washing their clothes, sweeping and cleaning, looking after younger children, helping to plant crops and preparing food. They seemed so independent. My friends and I back home used to complain if we were asked to tidy our rooms or set the table! The difference was striking.

Children at New Life International Children's Home after planting crops and helping to carry water. There were lots of chores to do in the children's home, but other children I met in Ghana, who lived with their families, also did so much more than the ones I have worked with back home.

Whether you are demanding fizzy orange squash or walking miles for water purely depends on where you happen to be born. Back in my home city of London, there are the "nice" areas and the "rough" areas and places which are in between. We have homeless people on the streets and other families living in sprawling mansions in the countryside. The children born into these situations will have very different experiences of life, and, sadly, some will not have very many opportunities compared to others. Here in South Africa, the differences between the way people live are very visible. I spent a lovely weekend with a family living in Camps Bay, in their beautiful home. Their child seemed to be experiencing a childhood quite similar to how mine was. The next day, due to my involvement with the local organisation, The Future Factory, I visited Egoli Squatter Camp. Life could not have been more different for the children there. The lack of the resources they need for the present, and the lack of opportunities they will have in the future, unless drastic action is taken, is very saddening. I have seen a similar situation while in Romania too. You can wander round the shops and restaurants in the picturesque old centre of Brasov, and yet half an hour away, on the outskirts of Sacele, lives a large Roma community in shacks. This article gives an insight into why the Roma community is marginalised, and the common perceptions people have of them. It quotes people at two organisations which I have also had some involvement with: The Atelier Sacelean Association and FAST. The marginalisation of certain communities seriously impacts on life for the children, and greatly affects the kinds of things they will be able to do when they reach adulthood.

A lot of charities and NGOs are committed to assisting those living in need. One aspect of the organisation I set up, is to respond to appeals from the local organisations we work with, to try and support them in the work they are doing to help children in their areas. (Although I suppose it is technically a charity, the idea is not just to dole out resources, but to form partnerships across the world, to link people in a global network, to be able to help support the children of our world. However, we are still quite small and new, and have a long way to go!) I always remember an organisation which had a different aim, Envision. This organisation supports young people who want to make a difference, and some of its volunteers came to my school while I was in the sixth form. At that time, Envision was mostly concerned with environmental issues (although it seems to now take on a more diverse range of projects). A group of us, helped by them, began our own projects around the school and in the local community, to help protect the environment. I think it is really great to raise awareness of world issues amongst young people and let them consider what some possible solutions could be. I wish I had known about other people's ways of lives when I was younger, and I believe it is important to raise awareness of the inequalities of the world. If the next generation grows up with this knowledge, they may be better equipped to solve some of the issues that we have failed with so far.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a World Summit on Food Security held in Rome. This CNN article begins by stating that:
"Somewhere in the world, a child dies of hunger every five seconds -- even though the planet has more than enough food for all."

That there is enough for everybody, I feel, makes this fact sadder than if there was genuinely not enough food to go round. Again, it is purely by accident of birth whether a child is born into a family who is going to be able to provide them with food easily or not. As well as creating structures to help those most in need, it is essential that more awareness is raised of the inequalities and injustices going on right now. As the leaders of tomorrow, it is important that all young people learn about these issues. Tomorrow's world belongs just as much to the children in the townships as it does to children anywhere else. We all need to put in the hard, but necessary, work to stop that statement from sounding like a nice ideal and make it the reality.