Hope is scary

“The problem with Swaziland is that we are not a democracy,” the man said to me as the rain fell softly behind his frame in the doorway. “Our government goes to other countries and signs all these papers that are supposed to protect us. Then those very same people come home and violate human rights themselves. You must have political parties to challenge each other to do the right thing, I think,” he mused.

We were sitting in a Neighborhood Care Point, known here as an NCP, and I was there to help supervise the first day of a baseline study for the PEPFAR project I am managing. Our research teams were visiting NCPs and Gogo Centers all week to collect information about the challenges facing children and the services they are able to access. “Gogo Center,” literally translated, is a “Grandmother Center,” where the community grannies care for and feed local children who have been orphaned or are vulnerable in other ways. In order to collect our information, we were holding focus group discussions with parents, children, caregivers and leaders in the community. “I am the bucopho for this area (“the Brain,” or the highest ranking member of the Chief’s Inner Council), a Child Protector, and a Home Caregiver here,” the man told me, ticking each one off on his fingers. I looked at him, impressed. Each of those positions is enough to create nearly full-time work for a community volunteer, and to take on all three at once would be a rather daunting task.

“So why do you think these human rights violations that you are talking about happen?” I asked him. He looked out the window at the falling rain for a moment before replying. “I don’t know, exactly,” he said. “But you see the King, if you say something bad against him or the government, they say you’re a terrorist and put you in the stocks We have a Parliament, and they are supposed to represent the people. But even though Parliament is elected by the people, the members still answer to the King, you see? They do not answer to the people who elected them. A Parliament should answer to the people, not the head of state,” he said. “So you see, there is no one to regulate what they are doing to us.” “True leaders represent people,” I agreed. “Otherwise, they are just people who have power, which is something different. He looked at me and nodded slowly in agreement.

For a moment, we both sank withdrew silently back into our thoughts. “Do you think the King has any idea what life is like for a child living here in Moneni?” I asked, pulling us back to the sound of the rain coming down more steadily. Once again, he paused before he answered. “I don’t think he does,” he decided. “If he understood this, he would do more to help the people of Swaziland, and there wouldn’t be so many human rights violations. We see so many girls getting pregnant so young – twelve, thirteen year-old girls.”

“Why is that happening here?” I asked him. “Do you think that some of these girls are having sex with older men in exchange for food for their family? Maybe they are taking care of siblings and don’t know how else to provide for them.” “Yes, that is often the case,” he said to me, an intensely regretful look in his eyes. “Sometimes you find that these girls are maturing but they don’t really understand what is happening to their bodies, and they don’t feel that they have any choice in the matter. Maybe they are just looking for a short-term way to find food for their family.”

“The people here are so poor, and they don’t have much – not even education. What will happen to the future generation if these children don’t go to school? Their children won’t go to school, then. And what can anyone expect to do without going to school?” he said, looking at me with a hint of resigned desperation in his eyes as he spoke. “It is Government’s responsibility to provide free education for children. But they are failing.”

I looked past the bucopho and out into the playground, which sat under an overcast sky and was soaking up the huge raindrops like a sponge, appearing dry even in the pouring rain. I pondered this and thought about his words. Despite the weather’s nasty turn, some of the children were still sitting on the swings as if it were still the dry weather of fifteen minutes ago. They swung listlessly back and forth, back and forth as the rain fell around them. It was the middle of the day, and here were children who should be in preschool , at the very least. Swaziland was failing these children, and dooming its own future. Who knows what some of these children would grow up to be if given the right tools to do so, or if they had been born in a different part of the world?

Later that afternoon, one of the staff members at the care point, Nkwalaza, sat and talked with me and the research assistants during one of our breaks. We had just finished a focus group discussion with a group of fathers from the community and were sitting in the main room, waiting for school to let out so we could conduct our next sessions with the children who would come for an after-school meal. We sat around the bare table on plastic chairs, the others munching on bologna sandwiches and sipping cups of coke. “You know, most of the children in this area don’t progress further than Standard 5 in school,” he informed us as he waved half of his bologna sandwich in the air and held his soda in the other hand. Standard 5 is equivalent to Grade 7. “The most that anyone around here has is a Form 5 certificate (note: this is equivalent to a high school diploma) It is unheard of for someone from Moneni to go to university. Unheard of. It just does not happen. So then, what happens to the future generations?” he asked us, echoing what the bucopho had just expressed to me earlier that day. “What hope do these children have for anything in life with such a grim prognosis?” The other research assistants and I looked at each other and then down at the ground, murmuring our agreement thoughtfully.

I was painfully aware of the non-monetary wealth I have been blessed with as I listened to this man speak. I have a family who supports and encourages me, and wonderful friends who do the same. I’ve gotten to travel outside the community where I grew up. I got to go to 8th grade.

“And this problem of older men having sex with young girls… You heard what those men said in that focus group discussion just now,” he said. “If they see a young girl who is ready to mate, they will just go after her without a thought. That’s just what happens here; it’s what has always happened here. And when something like that happens so often, it becomes ‘normal,’ and people don’t think of it as something to be outraged about. If they see an old man taking a young girl like that, it is just accepted, whereas they should be saying, ‘Get away from that little girl’ and protecting her.”

Outside, I noticed that more children were gathering, standing in small groups and chatting. Occasionally, a ripple of laughter met our ears, and their shouts to each other across the yard echoed around us. The Gogos (grannies) trudged slowly back and forth from the main building to a small outdoor cooking area that was partially covered with some planks of wood and corrugated iron. They wore hats and scarves to protect their heads from the elements, and they wore looks of concentration and exhaustion on their wrinkled faces. Every once in a while, I caught one of them smiling at the children as they carried enormous pots filled with thick, white porridge to and from the building. The colors on the long pieces of cloth they wrapped around themselves as skirts spoke louder than any of them did as they carried out their work to care for these children.

“But that’s the danger of letting abuse happen over and over again,” said Nkwalaza, and I snapped my attention back to the conversation. “If child abuse is considered to be ‘normal,’ then you just have no hope of fighting against it. We need to raise a lot of awareness about these issues, but NGOs also need to really commit to a community and make follow-ups on reported cases of abuse. If we report a case of abuse now, we will find the perpetrator back on the streets after only two weeks in jail, grinning and holding a beer and on the loose again. What will motivate a community member, then, to report another case of abuse if that’s the outcome? What will motivate a Child Protector to report if the effort is worth nothing in the end? There has to be some sort of community response to these things, and if there is none, then nothing will stop it from happening over and over again.”

“So you see,” he said, looking around at us with sadness etched into the lines around his eyes and mouth, “the children here are very, very vulnerable.”

As I looked at him and drank in his words, I wondered about his own story. Where was he from, and how had he ended up working in this place? “I can try to talk to these kids myself and try to motivate them to try to make something out of their lives, but they won’t listen to me. They’ll say, ‘Sure, maybe all of that is possible in your world. Our world is different, and what you are saying is not possible for us.’” He paused a moment and took another bite of his sandwich. “These are kids who are used to digging in the trash for scraps of food that someone else has thrown away. How can they listen to me as if I know what their life is like?” he asked us with imploring eyes.

“What they really need is for someone from their own community to motivate them that way, to give them hope. But the very, very few people who escape this poverty never come back. You see, people think of poverty as quicksand, and if you can get away, you stay as far away from it as possible because you are afraid that it will suck you back in. You run away and never, ever come back. So the people who can’t get away are stuck here by themselves.”

“I guess hope can be a scary thing to allow yourself,” I commented. “Maybe they don’t want to set themselves up for bigger disappointments.” “Yes, hope can be very scary,” he said. “Sometimes it’s safer to expect to stay just where you are.”

By this time, the care point was full of children who had filled the scantily furnished playground, crowding onto the swings in fours and wrestling with each other. From the inside of the building, they sounded like children from any other part of the world playing. Screams of laughter assaulted our ears as they chased each other around the playground. But as we handed out the sandwiches we had leftover from our focus group discussions to them, the atmosphere on the playground turned serious. They lined up immediately in a neat row with hungry expressions on their faces, and each of them came forward silently to accept their sandwich (two pieces of dry bread with one piece of bologna between them), waiting until they had turned away to start eating. For many of them, this would be their only meal of the day. I surveyed the playground with its broken equipment and dying grass, and at the children themselves, wearing dirty clothes with huge gashes and tears in them, many of them either several sizes too big or small. Could I blame them for not having much hope, or for feeling resigned to where they were? Their screams of laughter could only carry them so far, after all. They would not transport them from this place, and nor would their odds. “I’m hopeful for these children,” Nkwalaza said as he came up behind me and gazed out at the playground. “I think it’s good that organizations like yours are coming in to help the communities. Maybe someday this place will look different.”I smiled at him and hoped with all my heart that that was true.

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