|The Courier N° 143 - Jan - Feb 1994 Dossier: Fighting Poverty - Country Report : Niger (EC Courier, 1994, 96 p.)|
Face to face with the poor
The Meeting Point this time may seem a little unusual to many of our readers. We believe that one of the most important claims of the poor is to be heard and, with large sections of the media keen for the latest pictures and events and silent on poverty, we have decided to print what the poor themselves have to say. This has been made possible by the Movement International ATD - Quart Monde, which has provided us with extracts from its Cahires du Quart Monde publication, which has contributions from men, women and children from every continent and every walk of life. Anonymity is preserved by quoting only the continent or sub continent of those featured and altering the names of anyone mentioned.
The extracts from Cahires du Quart Monde deal with the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, the Indian Ocean and Africa.
Hunger and peace - The Caribbean
Hunger makes people violent. Violence makes people hungry. If they haven't got a job, they go hungry.
Every morning, Michou goes to school on an empty stomach. When I have a penny or two, I give them to her. When I don't, she goes without. 'Mummy, I don't feel right,' she says and I say: 'You'll just have to cope.'
When the children had corn to eat on Sunday, they were fine. But when they are hungry, you can see the anger in their faces, all of them. My own children swore at me again yesterday!
I've got neighbours who hit their children. When you look at them, you can see those children are hungry. Their mother says: 'You can see I haven't got anything at all and you're still asking !' And she hits them.
There's a girl with two children. The little one is just two months old, but she can't even feed him and she hasn't got anything for the older one either. She was thrown out last night. She had to take the children up to the homeless shelter in the rain. She had nothing at all for them to eat. She was so hungry herself that she even asked a man for money, but all he said was: 'A nice young woman like you! You got yourself pregnant and now you're begging!'
It's like a war, battling against all these insults. K she had had any food for her children, would she have gone begging ? It's all such a battle...
When I'm hungry, I go to bed. I won't say anything to anybody. When Catherine calls me, I don't feel like answering. When she says: 'Mummy, I'm hungry,' I smack her for that sometimes. I actually hit her! She wants too much money and I'm hungry too.
I pretend things are OK, but I know all about hunger.
My house is the wind - Asia
Cathy lives under a board on the pavement. The other day she smiled and said: 'My house is the wind.'
Frances and her family moved into the cemetery years ago. 'This is the bungalow where I live with my youngest daughter,' she says, pointing to one or two bits of wood propped up against a tombstone.'
Pat, who lives up a dark passage in a slum, says, 'Our house is a sandwich house.'
And Christina, you talk about your ramshackle house, don't you, where your four-year old daughter fell through the rungs of the ladder you used as a staircase.
The day they pulled down the house, just before Christmas, you swallowed your anger and your anguish and helped calm your husband, to stop him being violent with the landlord, didn't you? Then, when it started raining, the children were worried. 'How are we going to keep dry, Mummy?' You plucked up your courage and said, cheerfully: We can cope with a drop of rain, can't we? It's nothing.' But in your heart of hearts, you were desperately wondering where you were all going to steep that night. Now you live in a makeshift shelter over a drain, don't you ? Your matchbox home blocks the neighbours' way out and they are worried that they won't be able to get by K there is a fire, which often happens, and they've said you have to move.
Your husband had no regular work for years. He couldn't feed the children and he often stayed away from home for days at a time. Your brothers and sisters told you to leave him, but you refused. 'I want my children to be brought up In a united family,' you said, and you hung on. And the other day, as your husband rebuilt your tiny shelter and unblocked the drain, late at night, in the rain, your son was proud to help.
Rubbish tip - Central America
It is difficult to describe, because it is happening everywhere. How can families live like this in the middle of all this rubbish, with all the smell ?
The houses really are made of anything that can be re-used - corrugated tin, cardboard boxes, bits of cloth, mattress springs etc.
This afternoon, we went to the tip with the street library. A little boy came up and took a book and sat down. A little girl found us a bench to sit on and a man came up with a chair. Bit by bit, children came up and chose books and looked at them. Some of them were barefoot and some had shoes without laces. One had odd shoes. Some had practically no cloth" on.
Maria, a little four-year old, arrived with her brother and sister. She threw herself into my arms as if she was looking for somewhere to be safe. She was wearing the filmsiest of yellow frocks and she was cold, like some of the others. Antonia suggested playing ring-a-ring-a rosary, but Maria wasn't enthusiastic. She held my hand and dragged me over to the games. I sat down and she sat on my knee and watched the other children.
Thursday 23 August. Why did Maria's short life end yesterday afternoon ? She helped the family scavenge for food, and yesterday, she found some scraps and tucked them in her arms and then the accident happened. That lorry tipped its load of rubbish on top of her and now she's dead. She was only four...
Never a week goes by without a man or woman or child being buried under the rubbish. Is it a sign of the disdain which the rest of the world feels for these people ?
Unborn but moved on - Europe
Six in the morning. 'Get up, you lot in there. Hands up against the wall!'
We were sleeping the sleep of the just in that tumbledown building. You can't imagine how I felt when they ran their hands over my stomach to search me. The baby started moving hard because my tummy was tight and I could tell she was distressed. Then they shouted: 'Out you go. Faster! We've had enough of moving you on all the time. Sort yourselves out, can't you ? Get a job like everyone else and you'll have somewhere to live!' 'Don't worry, Mummy and Daddy are here,' I told the baby. Not bom yet and already moved on. Never mind. You're nice and warm in there and once you're born, they'll have to house us.'
Laurence and Nicolas met on the street and Laurence is now seven months pregnant. Every day, they do the rounds of the authorities, social services and local offices in the hopes of getting accommodation, maybe a place in a home for couples. It doesn't work.
They tell me that Laurence has agreed to go into a maternity home in a distant suburb, because yesterday the doctor said the baby was too small and they were both anaemic. 'In any case, what with having to walk around all day and sleeping rough, I can't cope any more. Nicolas is very upset. It's the first time we'll have been apart. Did you hear what the social worker said ? As soon as the baby's born, they'll make her a ward of court. I know what that means.'
Little Nicole was born just a day or two ago. Proudly, they give her to me to cuddle and I am immensely happy. I pass to Nicolas, who holds her tight and rubs his chin gently against her cheek. His face clouds over when Laurence tells me that she is going to have to leave the home in a month's time - with nothing else in view. They know that the Child Welfare authorities will keep the baby and it will be a struggle to get her back.
Nicolas, his voice thick with emotion, says: 'Tell them all we're humans, not animals.'
She watched the others go - Indian Ocean
When I arrived in the city, Jenny was walking about with Radash, her little brother, strapped to her back. Her mother works to keep them all, but she doesn't earn much. Certainly not enough to pay a child mincer.
There's grandma, of course, but she's sick. She can't get to sleep at night because there isn't enough room and the children fidget and, in the daytime, she's too tired to look after Radesh.
And there's Giovanni, the eight year-old, who hangs about with nothing to do all day. 'He's an unlucky child,' his mother says. 'He broke his arm the day he was supposed to go to school and then it was too late.' But boys don't look after babies.
So when Radash was born 18 months ago, Jenny left school. Jenny looks after her brothers. And Jenny sometimes does the cooking and, on those days, she doesn't get to the literacy classes Hedley gives for girls of her age. But when grandma does the cooking, Jenny is delighted to be able to attend. She is the youngst in the group. Hedley organised a trip out with the children yesterday. Jenny wanted to go and we suggested she took the baby, but grandma was asleep and Jenny was unwilling to leave her by herself. She watched the others go. There were no tears and no complaints. At nine years old, Jenny already knows her family needs her, her presence and her loving care.
Starry eyed - Africa
Children sleep in the streets here, where we live, dozens of them, 12 year olds, in groups. They beg by the ice cream dispensers - most of their parents are beggars too - and they sleep on the pavement, they unload the fish when the fishermen come in and they pinch things around the purchasing centres. In the evening, they get together on parking lots and the waste land between the buildings on the commercial estate. They cadge leftovers from nearby restaurants and they boil them up and eat them. And then they go to sleep on the concrete pavements.
Some of them steal but others won't. 'It's better to ask 10 times than take once,'Salim told me. But a little later, he said, symptomatically, 'I don't have any friends.'
Some of these children really are orphans or the offspring of lepers forced to live in isolation and some of them have left their villages because of drought.
One of them was gathering starfish at low tide and throwing them back in the water to regain their life and colour. An old man asked him why he persisted with this strange task and the boy said the starfish would die if they were left high and dry in the sun. 'But there are miles of beach and thousands of starfish! I can't see that it's making much difference!' The boy looked at the starfish in his hand and threw it back into the sea. 'It's making a big difference to that one, at least.'
Our street children still have stars in their eyes. They just need their lives restored.
We all have something to share which can change others - Africa
Working for peace is not for me, particularly if it's a programme of rights to fight for or defend. It's a question of us all realising that everyone is intrinsically worthwhile and has something to teach other people, questions and experiences to share which can make very practical changes to our ways of thinking and behaving.
A child only becomes somebody because he manages to do things he is proud to show off to other people. I remember a child who had malaria. As he couldn't come back to the Centre because he was working every day, we gave him the medicine to take home.
A week later, he was still sick, so we asked him a few questions and found out that he had taken some of the medicine, felt a bit better and given the rest to a young woman who was also sick, because she was alone too and had no one to help her.
We could have objected, because the course of drugs had to be started all over again, but we discussed the case with the boy and all the other children. We suggested that the boy should introduce us to the young woman in question and the great thing is that she became the children's friend. And then we all of us discussed the importance of the malaria treatment and tracked down everyone in the town who had the disease.