In 2007 I travelled to Western Kenya for so many reasons, only a few of which I can articulate. The most significant of these reasons, is perhaps the most difficult for me to admit – I wanted to matter, I wanted to be a part of something that mattered. I don’t see it as vanity as such, but as an overwhelming desire to make what was wrong right, to end exploitation, to protect the powerless and to do what little I could to make sure that every child within my reach had the opportunities the deserved. This was perhaps a little idealistic, but then, as now, I find it impossible to draw a distinction between the “us and them” of the first and third worlds. I am grateful that my son Mandela has been blessed/cursed with the same passion for justice.
Shorty after my arrival in Africa I was taken to visit the “Lunenele Self Help Group” which was an initiative of the Lunenele Community – a small village in a rural area. This village, was falling behind the rest of Kenya, which “boasted” only an estimated 40% of adults having even commenced secondary school. This group came into existence after the HIV/AIDS virus plagued the community leaving them with seven widows, five widowers and a total of 39 orphans. Shocked and sadden I wrote an article called Community AIDS Orphans. I assumed that such a tragic situation had to be the exception rather than the rule. I was however mistaken. All across Kenya communities are facing the same problems. AIDS is taking parents from their children leaving them even more vulnerable to contracting the deadly virus. It is fair to say that when looking at the bleak future these children faced with no parents to protect them and without a government that was willing or able to provide education, healthcare or any form of social welfare for parent less children, I did and I do feel great sympathy for their situation.
One Saturday, I was in a nearby town, about to spend $2 on lunch in a land where $1 was a day’s wages for many. From across the road i witnessed somewhat of a commotion. I say ‘somewhat of a commotion’ because while it was loud, and visible, I seemed to be the only one who noticed anything unusual. What was happening was what appeared to be the justice system of the world of the street children in action. A group of street children dragged another street child down a narrow alley between a camera studio and a clothing shop, closing a gate behind them. When they were out of sight I could here screaming and yelling… they unmistakable sounds of violence. I stared after them at in horror, while my female companion simply said ‘The thing about this town is if you have to feel sorry for one person, you have to feel sorry for everyone.’
She had a point. Especially since she was from a minority group of Kenyans in the area who were able to pay to send their children to high school. While some of the students I had been teaching at a local primary school were in their twenties, she was just 17 and had already finished secondary school, making plans to attend university after she completed the short computing course she was studying. Thus it is fair for her to assume that as she was better off than most Kenyans, then there were a lot of people she could be feeling sorry for.
I think it is normal for people to compare themselves and others to an ideal person either real of imagined. And so I wonder, is it also normal for us to compare people who’s lives are in peril with others suffering similar of worse fates? Take the Lunenele Orphans for example, 39 children left parentless relying on the support of a community operated maize mill as their only source of income, which is unlikely to provide enough income for them to attend secondary school. Then we could compare them to the orphans of a nearby village who rely on the charity of individual families in the area for their daily bread as there is no community scheme existing to help them. Then compare both groups to the groups of hardened street children who roam the streets of Kakamega, Kisumu and Nairobi – places where I, a grown woman will not walk alone – looking for food, a place to sleep, and sadly, glue or petrol to sniff. Who is in the worst position? I think we could agree that the street children suffer the worst fates, followed by the unsupported village orphans, and then the Lunenele Orphans. But why are we comparing them? Do we have only enough room in our hearts for a few children?
Do we not realise that our compassion costs us nothing, and every tear is tragic?