Thursday, July 7, 2011

The children of Kampala

I had difficulty getting to sleep last night.  No, I hadn’t eaten too much cheese or curry, or imbibed too much coffee.  My sheep-counting was pretty focused and the bed pretty comfortable.  Why then? Well, at about 10.30pm a child started crying.  The sounds came from quite close to us.  I crept out onto the balcony at the back to listen and reckoned they came from just up the lane behind our flat. 

What sort of crying?  Desperate, heartbroken crying…Mummee….sob, sob….Mummmee….sob, sob, Mummee….  followed by hiccupping breaths then back again, Mummee…. Sob, sob…Mummee….

How old was the child? Three, perhaps, four at the most.

And why was he or she crying? I really have no idea.  She (female gender for convenience, for I really don’t know) was definitely outside.  Lost?  Why did no passerby help? Locked out by accident?  Then why did no one let her in?  Locked out on purpose?  Possibly.  Perhaps a punishment for some childish crime.  Some crime, to be locked out at three years old in the middle of the night...

It took me back several decades.  When I was about eight, my younger brother and I went to stay with our grandparents, good upright Baptists, ex-Plymouth Brethren: generally kindly, but brooking no nonsense.  We were allowed out to play on the swings in the park at the back of the house, well within sight of the back door - allowed, that is, on condition that we came back at a particular time, and quite right too.  Inevitably, wristwatches not being normal wear for children in the 1950s, one day we were late.  How late? No idea, probably about ten minutes, for children’s stomachs usually tell them when it’s time for tea, watches or no watches.

We tried the front door.  It was locked.  We rang the bell, we knocked on the door.  No reply, silence.   Where was Nana? Several minutes passed. Then the letterbox inched open and part of a face appeared, Nana’s face.

‘You’re late.  I’m not going to let you in,’ my grandmother announced.  And she didn’t.  We stood on the doorstep, frozen – not with cold, for this was a hot Kent August and we came from chilly Lancashire – but with fear, sheer heart-stopping fear, for my grandparents never told lies.  We weren’t going to be let in.  Where could we go?  Who would feed us?  Where would we sleep?

We stood there for what seemed to me to be hours, though it was probably only fifteen minutes or so.  Eventually the door opened and a grim-faced grandmother marched us in.  Silence at the tea table, silence as we went early to bed, silence as I lay there wide awake thinking, 'what if...'.

And yesterday, for how long did the crying go on halfway up the lane in middle class Ntinda?  At least half an hour, perhaps 45 minutes. Clearly the child was guilty of a crime even worse than mine all those years ago - or else she had nowhere else to go.  I wondered what I should do.  In Scotland, I would have had no doubt. Scottish professionals are well tuned into the principles of child protection. ‘It’s everyone’s job to make sure I’m all right’ was the theme of some of the early child protection materials.  In Scotland, I would have gone out to see what the matter was.  I would have waited and watched, keeping an eye to make sure nothing dreadful happened to the child and, after I had waited long enough to be sure that this was real child neglect,  I would have phoned the social workers or police.

But here, in Uganda?  I paced the balcony.  How could I interfere in a family’s life in another country with its own child-rearing traditions?  And yet, this was a child who was clearly suffering, not physically as far as I could tell, but emotionally and psychologically.  Would I phone ANPPCAN?  Would the family lynch me if they thought I was interfering?  Not an empty fear, for lynchings happen pretty frequently here.

In the end, fortunately, the crying stopped. Either the child at last fell asleep or she was eventually allowed into the house, I don’t know.  The outcome for me was the best part of an hour of misery and guilt at my own cowardice, and some further hours lying awake wondering at what point I would have been prepared to risk my own safety in order to assure the safety of a child.

Those of us who come from comfortable western backgrounds with their clear accepted norms about things like child-rearing can find life in Uganda quite difficult. Another relatively minor  incident earlier yesterday illustrates it.  Walking past our local supermarket in the early evening I came across a small boy.  He looked about seven at most, though Ugandan children are smaller than ours so I don’t really know.  What I do know is that he was having considerable difficulty balancing the heavy metal container of sweetcorn on his head.  No one was buying and he looked utterly miserable.  I was off to catch a bite at a local restaurant but, nevertheless, I bought a couple of ears of corn just to make his load lighter and give him something to take back to his mother.  I was sorely tempted to buy the lot, and maybe I should have done – though that might simply have proved to his mother how profitable it was sending her little son out on his own along a busy city road in order to make money.  

That was a trivial, commonplace incident, for child labour is rife over here.  We see children searching on rubbish tips for plastic bottles or other objects to sell at 9 o’clock in the morning, off to the fields with hoes on their shoulders at midday and hawking food along dark urban streets at 11 o’clock at night.  There is not an awful lot we can do about it. Changing patterns of family life will take far more than one or two westerners like me feeling guilt-stricken.  And who are we with our regular three meals a day to make judgements anyway?

Indeed, it is not just westerners who feel this way.   New Vision has a heart-breaking page every week entitled Lost Children, about children who end up being looked after by the Kampala police.  In a country with no postal addresses, a child who is lost is well and truly lost. This week’s page featured the following stories.
  • A ‘Good Samaritan’ had observed the same child on consecutive weeks selling boiled maize late at night in central Kampala.  The first time, seeing the child with tears running down his cheeks, he bought the entire contents of his basket.  The second time, he took him to the police station.  The boy told the police that he lived with his aunt and uncle outside the city centre and got punished if he didn’t sell all the maize.  Once the maize was sold, he then had to walk home. He had dropped out of P2 as there was no money for school fees.  His mother had abandoned him when he was a toddler, leaving him at his father’s house in one of the Kampala slums. The story finished, ‘Sekitoleko wants a Good Samaritan to take him back to school.  He can be reached on…’
  • Two brothers were abandoned by their father after their family was evicted, and taken to the police by another Good Samaritan.
  • A child from DR Congo had made his way to Kampala by bus, a journey of at least 500 miles, looking for his mother.  He did not know her name.
  • A 16 year old girl was told by a relative to come to Kampala for school fees but when she got here he had switched his phone off.
  • A 13 year old girl who had dropped out of P2 as her mother could not afford the fees was handed over to a woman who came to her family home.  Instead of being taken to school as she thought, she ended up as a maid looking after the woman’s children.  When she objected, she was thrown out. She wants to go back to her mother.
  • A 10-year old lost his way in a city slum as he looked for his father.  His mother had already abandoned him and he had been living with his grandmother in another slum.

In a country with very little family planning, no right to abortion and disgraceful levels of sexual abuse the plight of children and their child mothers is desperate. Every week we read of children dumped in ponds by despairing mothers who cannot feed them and babies drowned in pit latrines by hopeless teenagers who are ashamed of being ‘defiled’ and terrified of the future. The same themes are repeated again and again – shattered family structures, dire poverty and the destructive effects of dysfunctional health and education systems.

One of the most upsetting journeys for me is along Kampala Road at the heart of the city.  Kampala has relatively few beggars, fewer I always think, than Edinburgh.  People tend to hustle instead: sell a few boiled eggs, a handful of tomatoes, an armful of lurid plastic toys – you know the score.  However, along Kampala Road you see dozens of dark, scrawny and filthy street children, brought here from drought-ridden Karamoja, either by their desperate parents or by traffickers who then live off their earnings. Usually barefoot, always ragged, they break my heart.  And we cannot give to them for we mustn’t encourage trafficking which tears children away from their homes, and begging which keeps them out of school. The girls are often raped and end up as prostitutes.  All are at risk of violence and drug addiction and of becoming muggers and thieves themselves.  Many become HIV positive. They sleep in the gutters and alleyways and in abandoned shacks.  According to the Daily Monitor this week, police say that ‘toddlers were paying SHs300 (about 20p) to the owners of the shacks a night as lodging fees.’ 

The police, surprisingly, come out of these stories really quite well.   They feed lost children out of their own pitifully meagre salaries and let them sleep on the floor of the police station.  This week they rounded up more than 300 street children and sent them to a rehabilitation centre.  Those who are old enough will apparently be sent to school and the younger ones will be ‘taken back to their home areas’, though how the police will track down their families I have no idea.   One would like to think that these abandoned children will have a new and better life, but one doubts it.  The rehabilitation centre is reported as having no bedding and being infested with lice. 

However, the streets will be pleasanter for people like me, I suppose.  There will be fewer tearful children, less guilt and more chance of a full night’s sleep.

PS. Since I wrote this I have found out that each area of Kampala has a police child protection team - I must get the number!

You may also be interested in the post Growing up in Uganda

African Network for Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) - Uganda Chapter

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