*Disclaimer: for ethical purposes, the names used in this article are fictitious in order to respect and preserve the identity of the children.
Grootlaagte is a small settlement found in the Ghanzi North region. It carries a little over a 1000 inhabitants of the Khoisan tribe. Side note: for those who think Basarwa (The San people, also known as the “Bushmen”, are members of various Khoisan speaking indigenous hunter and gatherer groups that are the first nation’s of Southern Africa, and whose territories span Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and South Africa) speak one universal language, they do not. Grootlaagte inhabitants speak Sekaukau, which according to people, is the most difficult. Maybe it’s because this group of people is the only one that speaks it.
Every month, there is scheduled power cut where I live. The Botswana Power Corporation usually sends out a notice prior to the power cuts. Today was no different. However, instead of seeing the notice at my office, which deals with social welfare and community development, a group of children brought it to my house. “We came to bring you this,'' says the young girl wearing the brightest smile on her face. "Thank you." I say as I go through the contents of the notice. The power company has decided to cut the power from six in the morning until six in the evening on Sunday. While reading through the paper, the children start a conversation with me.
"What are your names?", I ask.
There’s about eight of them and one who seems to be about a year old. They tell me their names, their grade at school and how Xukuri doesn't like going to school. I ask why. The lively chatty girl, Qabo, tells me that Xukuri’s mother does not allow him to go to school and how he also likes to sleep in when the others get up. I ask Xukuri if it's true, he laughs and tells me it's a lie. In fact, he isn't of age yet. He smiles a silly smile and we laugh at his silly smile.
Our friendly banter continues for a few more minutes with no particular topic in mind. We laugh a lot because Xukuri is clowning around in an endearing, mischievous way. Some of the children stay silent because they cannot speak Setswana. They speak Sekaukau, the local language, which I do not know. They throw in some Sekaukau in between their sentences. I try to imitate them and they laugh at my mispronounced words and applaud me at the times where I am able to enunciate the words properly.
Eventually, Qabo, the 9-year old girl who speaks with so much confidence and appears to be the more mature one in the group in the way she keeps chiding the younger ones telling them to behave themselves, turns to me and asks if I have some food to spare. I tell her I hadn't made anything at lunch and would probably cook later in the evening as I was still exhausted from work. She tells me that at their home, there are over fifteen people. They have two mud huts and they cook their food outside using firewood. Most of the food they have is from the government in the form of food baskets provided for the needy. She tells me that sometimes the children themselves, who are all under the age of ten, are forced to cook when they are hungry. When there is no food, as there was none today, they would have to go to bed hungry. I am shattered looking at her narrating their home setup so matter-of-fact.
She then says, "You don't have anything ready now, but at least you will be able to cook something to eat later. As for us, some days we go to sleep without anything to eat because there isn’t enough food to feed all of us."
I don't know what to say as she goes on mentioning how they haven’t had anything to eat today except for the meal they had at school. Her words are, "Re a sotlega", meaning that they are poor. She tells me to call her on the days when I have enough food to share, and before they leave we engage in some free Sekaukau lessons.
People speak of poverty like it's a crown of glory for those campaigning to be the knights in shining armour for the politics of the poor. They speak of how they want to rid the locals of poverty like it's an animal you can chase out of the yard and have disappear into the depths of the wilderness. They forget that here, in this settlement, poverty has made a home in the bellies of the children and marks its presence on the dehydrated skins of old men and women. It is tattooed on a baby’s face and malnutritioned body. It smells of the stench of days with no shower and dirty clothes. It wraps itself around ten children whose mothers cannot afford to do anything but wait upon a food basket to sustain their families.
Here we do what we can but these SDG targets are far from being reached. They have become a numbers game where we search for quantity in metrics and statistics rather than the quality of life of the individuals they are meant to serve. World leaders, speak of poverty from their well built homes when there are people who don’t even have those ‘simple’ things. Everything on them is a donation and someone has the nerve to give a universal definition of poverty and to even come up with universal ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions. Nonetheless, we, the locals, sit in a circle and sing our traditional songs in the evening, we forget there is poverty and are thankful for life. We fear leaving our families to try life elsewhere, especially the youth who are still able-bodied. Maybe because we have not been equipped to imagine life outside the borders of our existence, or because we simply have learnt to wait for whatever will come.
Here, we cry of unemployment, of bad roads, of no lights, regardless, we sit in our mud huts that are ready to collapse and we care not for brick houses built for us. In fact, we leave the modern houses and find solace in sleeping outside, under the cover of the midnight sky stained with bright stars and the cold breeze that quenches the day's thirst. We hold onto the idea that another day will come and we will still be here. Here, we are the marginalized ones who these policies and principles try to include but find that they exclude us further into our "poverty”.
In this settlement , I’ve learnt to redefine poverty to more than a target for the visions we have for our country. Poverty paints homes in desolation and dirt. It licks food off the faces of children and leaves them begging for anything that would satisfy their hunger. It sleeps in the hearts of the people and leaves them desperate for whatever will come their way. Sometimes it is teenage pregnancy because an older man decided to gift himself with the innocence of the child and in return, buy the family food supplies. Sometimes it is the young man being exiled to the farms just so he can fend for his family. He forgets to come back home until he’s in a casket. Sometimes it is defined in the loud cry of a drunk mother and father who believe this brown liquor will make them forget what tomorrow holds. Poverty here is as a simple as a torn shoe, a school uniform that is also home clothes, a cracked dirty bowl feeding a newly born child. It lives and grows from one generation to the other. It has become hereditary. Yet we still applaud our efforts in policies that have clearly failed the people. It lives and grows from one generation to the other. It has become hereditary. Yet we still applaud our efforts in policies that have clearly failed the people.
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