Friday, October 17, 2008

Rubbing Shoulders with Poverty

It was Blog action day on Wednesday. I saw it on Charlotte’s Web, where she posted about AIDS in South Africa. The theme that they asked Bloggers around the world to write about was poverty, to get a world wide dialogue going, whether from a personal or general point of view.

I didn’t post about poverty on that day, though I did write a long comment on Charlotte’s post. The truth is that I love my rose-colored spectacles, looking on the bright side, seeing the sunny view and I like to keep my blog calm and rosy! Living in South Africa though, we are rubbing shoulders with poverty the whole time. It is not tucked away in a separate housing district like in many European countries. It is sitting beside the main road into Cape Town from the airport for all to see. Our employees live in what would be considered abject poverty in Europe, but here they are better off than many because they have a regular salary. Half of the children from our children’s school come from an informal settlement of shacks that we drive past every day on the way to school.

We have to grow a tough skin in our daily life. There is no way that you can solve all the problems of everyone you meet, wave a magic wand and make it all better. You have to concentrate on helping a few people in as constructive a way as you can and get on with your lives. At the moment we are putting a lot of energy into our school, finding sponsors and fundraisers to keep it going into another year, so that as many children from disadvantaged backgrounds as possible can get an education that gives them a future.

The school provides them with a secure and stable educational environment but there is nothing we can do about their home lives. There is a long political history to these informal settlements that I won’t try to explain coherently here, but this one has a large proportion of people from the Eastern Cape/ Transkei, who have come here from a very poor rural area to find work. Up till recently all the houses were shacks, built of planks, plastic and corrugated iron, the roads just packed dirt. Water comes to standpipes at the bottom of each street and there is one toilet between about twenty houses. It looks haphazard in the extreme, but apparently there is a committee who runs everything and allocates space etc. In the last couple of years the government has had a building program going and quite a few families have been resettled in new block-built houses that, though tiny, have four rooms, running water and electricity. This doesn’t mean that the old shacks are torn down though, as there is always someone else ready to move in to a vacated space.

Up till recently this has always seemed a relatively peaceful community, away from the tensions that affect some of the Cape Town townships. We were worried about the recent xenophobia riots spreading out here, but luckily they didn’t. However, as in any human community where people are living in close quarters and on the breadline, there is much back-biting and resentment, especially about who gets the new houses. Two nights ago the official committee decided to do something about the problem of illegal shack extensions being built onto some of the houses. Apparently they went in and just knocked them down. This unsurprisingly set tensions flaring and in retaliation many of the committee members’ shack houses were torn down.

This is all hearsay. I wasn’t there. We hear it from the domestic workers at Camphill, who philosophically shrug their shoulders and get on with their lives; from the children at school, a few of whom lost their houses in the night, and others who were afraid to go home after school, in case their house would be gone. We see the damage when we drive to school, where a second night of fighting and toitoiing has left the debris of bonfires in the middle of the road; where the school sign has been torn down and rest sadly half burnt at the side of the road; the new banner advertising registration month for the school that went up only that morning has disappeared altogether.

The atmosphere at school is unchanged, an oasis of calm, where these children who have had to learn resilience very young, can come and feel safe from the uncertainty that surrounds them.

We are looking for sponsors for many of these children. The school needs financial help to keep places available for them, so I’m putting the link to the school site to help spread the word. If you feel inspired to link to the site too or know someone who might be interested in sponsoring a child’s school fees, please do send the word out into the blogosphere. Every little bit helps give a child a chance to grow into a better future.

We're lucky.We only rub shoulders with poverty. Our children are growing up with an awareness of how lucky they are. Poverty isn't something that happens in far-off lands when you live in South Africa. The child next to them in class goes home to it every day. It is something that affects real people that they know well. I hope it gives them understanding and humanity as they grow up and I hope that I am learning it too.


  1. Great post! Yes, we do what we can for a few, because there is so little we ultimately can do. However that something I like about living in Africa. Life seems a bit deeper, less on the surface, when you feel a daily appreciation for how much you have through accident of birth and nationality.

  2. Well you brought it home for me. Imagine being a child too scared to go home in case it isn't there any more.

    Such a thought-provoking post, Kit, and how healthy for your children not to be being brought up in a bubble like so many others. It sounds like a wonderful school you have there.

  3. What a great post. ANd how true - in Europe it is very easy to turn a blind eye to poverty because it is, for the most part, neatly segregated. But in South Africa it is a daily reality with consequences (direct and indirect) that all South Africans have to grapple with every day.

  4. What a stunning post, its funny how many can turn a blind eye to poverty and pretend its not happening, there is this non profit organization that I support that is doing amazing work helping kids please go see what they do on the following


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