Thursday, November 10, 2011

why I "kare" more about class poverty than Kim Kardashian

On Tuesday evening, I attended/crashed a party being held by Volunteer Service Overseas to celebrate 21 years of working in Namibia. VSO is kind of the rest-of-the-world version of United States’ Peace Corps, which is something that Canada doesn’t have. VSO has placed volunteers in Namibia since independence, but due to many (mostly financial) reasons is now pulling out of Namibia. I like parties, so I offered to represent my organization by manning our booth at the party.

It was held at the Playhouse Theatre again and there was a heck of a lot of free food and drinks, as well as a spectacular dance performance by the Ombetja Yehinga Organisation dance troupe, followed by a reggae show by Ras Sheehama and his band. Ras looks an awful lot like a Namibian Snoop Dogg.

What I enjoyed the most about the evening was the presentation of the work that VSO volunteers have been doing in Namibia. Their work includes rehabilitative work for TB patients, programs for abused women, kindergartens for vulnerable children, soccer camps for young girls, special education for persons with disabilities, and legal services for people who are discriminated on the basis of their HIV/AIDS status (which is what my organization does).

It was the images of the daycares for orphans which really did me in though. Because Namibia has one of the highest prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS, there are so many kids in Namibia who are orphans because their parents have died of AIDS. Some kindergarten programs have been set up to ensure that the little kids get some care, some education, a bit of play time, and one solid meal a day. They explained to us that at first they had so little that they couldn’t even afford a building, and we saw photos of small children trying to study while crowding under what is essentially a structure with a roof and no walls (sort of like where you might have a sheltered picnic spot), and you realize that this is their classroom, even when it rains or gets cold. Eventually with some donations, walls were built, which kind of reminds me of that line from the Simpsons:

Marge: You could give the money to the orphanage. I hear they need a new wall.
Orphan: Three is not enough! (very unattractive cough)

Except that this is somebody’s reality, and not just a TV cartoon.

When presented with these facts, I just started thinking about how it takes so little to make such a big difference in one person’s life. I started thinking, how can I go back to Canada and sit in my big safe clean home and complain about how time-consuming lawn care is or how long it took to download that last episode of Desperate Housewives or how I can’t figure out the colour of my table linen for my expensive wedding? How do I go back to having the biggest concern on my mind being the fact that my public transit bus is five minutes late? How do I bring myself to care about Kim Kardashian’s recent divorce?

I had to face the fact, once again, that I don’t want to be one of those people that, when confronted with signs of terrible suffering, injustice, and inequality, deal with this uneasy anxiety by immersing myself in mind-numbing diversions (like by getting engrossed in celebrity gossip). No. It might relieve my anxiety of realizing the world is not right, but it won’t solve the problem. It seems better to deal with this anxiety by trying to do something about it, no matter how small the contribution. I have no desire to push these problems out of my mind just so I can sleep better.

At work, I read a report on a pilot study that was done regarding a proposal to introduce a Basic Income Grant in Namibia. As part of the study, they gave N$100 to every person living in one area, with no strings attached on how they should spend it, every month for two years. The report records all the incredible changes that happened in the area that had ridden with crime and poverty for years. There was a huge reduction in child malnutrition, with the number of underweight children decreasing from 42% to 10%. School attendance increased significantly because people could now afford school fees and uniforms. People could also now afford to pay the N$4 to visit the health clinic for their medical problems, which is a big deal in a country dealing with such a high prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS. With the grant, people were now able to start up their own businesses in bread baking, dressing making, brick making. There was also a huge decrease in crime. After the study, it was clear that people were using the money to make their lives a whole lot better.

You know what outrages me? N$100 is approximately CAD$14. It seemed incredible that it only took fourteen Canadian dollars per person per month to significantly improve a family’s way of life. For the cost of a grilled chicken salad, soup, and an iced tea in downtown Ottawa, kids could be going to school, patients could be getting medical attention, and people could be running their own businesses instead of resorting to crime to feed their families. It just blows my mind.

Of course, I’m not saying that the solution is to just throw money at things. Whatever we do, we always have to keep in mind dignity, not dependence (as the BIG Coalition emphasizes), and we have to empower people in a respectful culturally-sensitive manner using sustainable strategies. I am so tired of hearing about well-meaning organizations installing water pipes but not paying for their maintenance (or more importantly, not training locals on maintenance and repair), leaving these water projects completely useless after they break down.

And nobody needs or wants your help if you come in ignorance. J told me a story about how those Christmas boxes that churches spend so much time collecting were doled out in a neighbourhood in Gaborone, Botswana. I think about how all these North American churchgoers spent all this time filling up the boxes with things that they were told African children need – stickers, crayons, paper dolls, marbles, dice, a comb, cute little trinkets – and all the effort that must have been made in coordinating their transfer to Africa. Only to have them delivered to a wealthy neighourbood where very well-off kids opened these boxes, and wondered why the heck white people were sending them this cheap stuff? I mean, I think those boxes would have been really well-received and enjoyed by other children living in other regions, but someone’s well-meaning but ignorant lack of understanding made all of these other people's efforts pointless.

And so here we are. We’ve got to do something about it, but we’ve got to do it right. It means not just giving out food, but giving people the skills to earn enough money to buy their own food (or grow their own food). It means not just giving an HIV patient a month’s worth of drugs, but launching public education campaigns to educate people on how HIV is spread, to prevent other people from getting it. It means not just giving a one time donation to pay for a sex worker’s legal fees; it means lobbying the government to change the laws and policies to stop victimizing vulnerable sex workers.

And it’s not just Africa either. The yawning gap of inequality between the rich and the poor is unacceptable in North America too. I’m not saying everyone should be the same and rich people should be punished. I’m just saying there should be a minimum standard of living so that no single mom has to live in a filthy, bedbug-ridden, freezing tiny one room apartment in Parkdale, Toronto, with her four kids and no way of ensuring they’ll all be able to eat breakfast. Not to mention that improving these social issues in North America will have a global effect too. Not just as a role model, but in the sense that, hey, if university wasn’t so expensive causing student loans to be so ridiculous, maybe more people would be able to spend a couple of years working on capacity-building in developing countries, rather than being forced to seek out a high-paying Bay Street job solely for the money.

Last night after work, I volunteered at the Centre in Katutura again to help out some of the kids with their studies. I wanted to practice reading and writing skills, but in a fun way. What’s more fun than comic books? Unfortunately, I didn’t have access to a bunch of comic books that I could use – in general, resources are strained around here and we often don’t have textbooks to teach out of. Luckily, I work at the Legal Assistance Centre where we release hundreds of publications that explain to people their legal rights on various topics -in comic book form. Perfect. I grabbed a half a dozen comic books on child labour and another half a dozen comic books on child abuse, figuring that this would be more relevant to the children than the other subjects.

I have to admit, all ten children’s eyes lit up like you’d never believe when I announced to the class that we were going to be studying comics today. We took turns reading from the comic books, taking the time to pause and explain harder concepts like “minor”, and with the older children helping the younger ones out with the bigger words. They didn’t seem to mind that the comic wasn’t about superheroes but instead how old you must be to be allowed to work.

Then (and I have to say this was my favourite part), we made our own comic strips. I handed out sheets where I had printed out Charlie Brown comics but erased all the text in the speech bubbles, and told the kids to create their own dialogue in the speech bubbles as a writing exercise. The next fifteen minutes was the quietest I’d ever seen them, with them concentrating hard and only speaking to ask how to spell words like “friend”.

After they’d finished, I had them each read out their comic, interrupting them only to correct their spelling. What I found fascinating was the fact that I think most of these kids had never heard of Charlie Brown before, so they didn’t incorporate the Peanuts personalities and the usual Charlie/Lucy banter. Instead, many of them wrote themselves into the story, or me, or other African characters named Moisha, etc. Some of them made a love story, while others made had the characters bicker, or talk about how much they loved school. One of the grade sevens wrote about smoking weed and getting high, which was somewhat disturbing. But most of them were quite creative and excited to share their comics with the others, and every one of them brought their comics home.

As the kids left, I saw one of the little boys limping with a very swollen ankle and I wondered why the heck nobody at home has looked at that yet. I felt upset and anxious again about it. I had to resign myself to the fact that we all have to do our part, and even if my part is something small and silly like introducing to kids my love of reading comics, you know, it’s still better than spending my days watching TV and trying to figure out exactly who Kim Kardashian is.