Out Of Africa

In which The Author sees some amazing children at play

On my way back from town about two weeks ago, I bumped into Florence on the bus. She asked me if I’d put a poster in my window, advertising a concert in the chapel around the corner from my house. It was on behalf of an organisation called Watoto – the Swahili for ‘children.’ I told her I’d try to go along on the night, stuck the poster in my window as promised, and sort-of forgot about it.
Late last week, she asked me if I could do some proofreading. Florence was born in Uganda (as regular readers know) and has English as a second language. She wanted me to look over an essay she’d been writing for her Open University course. When we were chatting, she reminded me about the concert, so I promised to go. I love African music anyway, so it was a good alternative to a night in the house.
I’ve just come back. Even though I smiled all through the performances, it was an evening of mixed emotions. I think the last time I was so moved by something was watching Live 8 on TV. Since it was a joint arrangement between the chapel and the Apostolic Church down the road (of which Florence and her husband are members) I guessed that there’d be a fairly evangelical feel to the whole thing. I’m not a practising Christian (or anything else) and I felt a little wary at first. My friend Jazz was sitting behind me (he’s a born-again Christian) and even he was concerned that it might be a bit too full-on.
It didn’t matter. Nobody could fail to be inspired by the beautiful smiling young people, and humbled by the stories they had to tell.
In Africa, there are approximately 17 million orphans of HIV/AIDS. Watoto works with some of these orphans in Uganda. Some of them are the unreported victims of civil war – former boy soldiers, forced to fight and kill from the age of 12. Others have lost their parents to HIV, and were begging on the streets of the city until they were taken to one of the Watoto centres. Here, they live in houses with seven other children in a shared house. The houses are supervised by single mothers (who themselves have suffered incredible hardship in their lives), and they and the children become new families. Each centre has a school, a clinic, a community centre, and a church. It’s a world away from the abject poverty and hopelessness the children have experienced hitherto.
The Watoto Children’s Choir is made up of a couple of dozen of these fantastic kids, ranging from six-year-olds to young adults. For two hours they danced, sang, drummed, and told us in no uncertain terms of the lives they’d led before coming to Watoto. They showed us films of the centres, and interviews with former residents who’d turned their lives around. Most importantly, they told us of the hope that they’d been given, and the ambitions they were hoping to fulfil.
One lad was going to be an accountant; a couple of the teenagers were headed for medical school; others were destined for teaching. One fantastic little girl was going to be a fashion designer. There was no ‘if’ about any of their plans – they are utterly determined to make the best of the chance they’ve been given.
Afterwards, in the chapel hall, there were beautiful handicrafts and souvenirs on sale. I felt awful, because I’m skint at the moment, but I still picked up a sponsorship form and a Gift Aid envelope. I’ll use one of the other of them when I get some cash. I had a brief chat with Florence while she was circulating. She again mentioned an idea she’d first broached when I was still working in Waterstones – for me to go out to Uganda and work in one of the centres. I’d love to do it. When I get my TESOL certificate, it’ll be an extra string to my bow.
And I couldn’t help but reflect on the kids I see wandering the streets of Aberdare every evening and weekend. They’ve got all their material needs catered for. They’ve all got the designer clothes, the expensive trainers, the latest phones, the games consoles, the fast food, the free education and health care. None of them have ever slept on the streets because their family homes have been burned down by rebel soldiers. They’ve never gone without food, or clothes, or electricity. They’ve never had to walk miles for clean water, or work all day in return for a plate of food.
And yet they seem to have a void in their lives. Is it a lack of focus, a lack of ambition? I remember an incredibly sad TV programme about the Penrhys estate in the Rhondda a number of years ago. An infants’ teacher told the reporters that they try to get the kids interested in art and music, ‘so that they’ll have something to do when they’re on the dole.’ Even before they could read and write, these youngsters were being totally written off by the system. (The fact that many of them will never learn to read and write is beside the point.)
It’s a problem which the politicians seem to be unable to remedy. Teachers seem to spend as much time peacekeeping as they do teaching. A lot of the parents don’t care about education. Ambition is a dirty word. In many cases, we effectively have children raising children.
Their lives are a morass of substance abuse, petty crime, reality TV and vacuous celebrities. Books are for geeks or nerds. Culture is for snobs. It’s no wonder the universities take so many International Students – on many courses, they’re the only ones with the necessary educational background. William Hogarth should be alive now, to interpret our present ‘civilisation’ in his inimitable fashion.
Given a choice of staying in this country, trying to interest spoilt, shallow, materialistic youngsters in education for its own sake, or going to Uganda and helping orphans with everything to live for, I know what I’d choose.

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