On the south side of Livingstone you can feel poverty in a way that I have rarely experienced elsewhere.
There are many community schools in this area that our volunteer organization works with to provide volunteers. The schools are pretty big – different than the smaller school north of town where we are working during our time here. I’ve talked with a few other volunteers who work in these schools, and it’s helped me to learn a little more about them.
Our experience with this area is not in the schools during normal school hours, since we spend our days at Elicecy north of town. But we do have the opportunity to go volunteer in this area after our normal placement has finished up for the day at an after school program called “homework club.”
For the most part, it’s exactly what it sounds like.
There are a lot of students at the schools in this area, and many of them have no one to help them with homework at home. Their parents may not be able to read, and so it is hard for them to help their kids. A teacher named Moses organized “homework club” at a building near the schools, and it’s been available to the kids for many years. Kids come with their workbooks and a pencil if they have one, and volunteers come to help them.
Homework club is different every day, and attendance varies from 30-50 kids, with the majority of them between 7-14 years old. It’s mostly volunteers from the organization we are working with who come to help them. Most days there are seven or eight of us that go, and we either walk together or we take a taxi for less than a dollar each. (The walk is not for the faint of heart – an hour and twenty minutes each way in the hottest part of the day!)
Very rarely do the kids actually have homework from school. Most of the time, they want you to write out math problems on a piece of paper, they wander off to work on it, and then they come back and ask you to check it. They will do this for the full two hours. You help them if they don’t understand or if they get it wrong. They also like to work on their English. They ask you to write out questions for them, and then they write out answers.
“What did you eat today?”
“Do you have a favorite game? What is the name of the game? Who do you play it with?”
“At what time do you wake up for school?”
If you have an iPhone, they all crowd around and lean in so close you have to tell them to back away. It’s hard to control the phone when there is a mob of kids closing in on you. It’s homework club, so if I get out my phone it is only to show them pictures. We’ve looked at pictures of snow, various mountain ranges, the Amazon rainforest, Redwood trees, and the weird fish you find in the depths of the ocean. I also showed them the satellite images on Google Earth, with the little dot that shows where you are. They were pretty excited to see their building and neighborhoods from a satellite in space.
On some days, the kids like to play games. Thursday they all get together to play soccer, where they have an actual soccer ball and play on a plot of land away from the homework club building. Other days, they play games at homework club.
At homework club they do not have any balls or toys, but they have a plastic bag that is stuffed with other plastic bags and then tied tightly together with yet more plastic bags. They use this as a ball for catch and various group games.
So… I’ll just say it — homework club has been one of the hardest things for me while here.
While you can feel the poverty in the area where we are working north of town, the students we work with at Elicecy DO have food. It may not be a balanced diet, but they have something to eat. There is water available for them, which is kept in a bucket in the corner of the classroom. A cup hangs on a bent wire, and when kids are thirsty, they can go up, scoop some water into the cup and drink. If they don’t drink it all, they dump it back in. All the kids use the same cup. The water isn’t treated, but it doesn’t bother their stomach the way it would if I drank it. Some of the kids have juice with lunch and a few have water bottles or with a drink from home.
But down by the Linda community schools south of town where homework club meets, it feels more intense. I learned some of the following things from the volunteers I’ve talked with who spend more time at the schools during their placements.
A lot of the kids and their families struggle with basic resources like food (…and let me clarify, this isn’t a struggle for ENOUGH food — just food. Period.)
Kids may go to school with nothing to eat. They don’t have anything to eat at home, either.
From what I hear, many of them do have a bucket of water available at school, so there is water while they are there. But a lot of the students walk to the school, some from pretty far away. In his heat… you REALLY need water.
Some of the kids have plastic water bottles, like what we would recycle back home (or throw away in the landfill… sad, but true). But here, many of the bottles are kept for a long time. For some of the kids, the thread on the cap of their water bottle is so worn that it will not seal anymore. They put a wrapper in-between the cap and the water bottle to try to keep it from leaking.
If you walk through the neighborhoods in this part of town with a water bottle, young kids will run out to you and ask for some of your water. At first, I wasn’t sure what to do. Now, I will ask them to cup their hands and pour it into their palms. I hate that their hands are so dirty, so sometimes I will try to dump it into their mouths in short bursts from a few inches up.
When you walk through the neighborhoods in this area you can feel the poverty, but there is also a definite sense of community. It feels like something to respect, and so I don’t really have any pictures of the area. It wouldn’t be right to wander through taking photos on an iPhone.
Women are gathered together between the ramshackle homes. Kids run in the streets playing together, many of them with bare feet and just an old pair of shorts. Most of the kids have flip flops, but a lot of the flip flops have already broken and been repaired several times. Many of the have metal corrugated roofs and siding, but I’ve seen a few constructed using clay and thatch, too. There is a lot of trash along the sides of the roads and it’s really dusty.
Everyone is still pretty friendly, though you do have to initiate a hello a lot of the time. You receive more greetings than stares.
Even so, it’s a heavy walk and hard to witness so much poverty.
It’s a hard thing to be face to face with the fact that there is SO MUCH SUFFERING in the world. It’s hard to reflect on all of the things I agonize over in my day to day life that are really NOT problems at all. It’s an absolute blast of perspective shift around all the things I should be more grateful for, and also a sad acknowledgment that this life is a reality for so many people.
It’s also hard to notice and try to rewire all the conditioned thoughts that float through your mind from interacting with people on street corners back home. Exhibit A: being asked for money.
This is a thing at homework club that I still haven’t figured out how to handle — the kids asking you to buy them things.
I feel like coming from the USA, I am conditioned to say “no” to people asking me for money on a street corner. It’s an immediate response in my mind most of the time, and I don’t think it’s incorrect to say that this is the case for most people. We usually reason that there are systems in place to help people, any money given would just go to drugs or alcohol, etc etc. The reasoning helps us feel better about avoiding eye contact, walking to the other side of the road, ignoring and moving on with our day. I’m not being high and mighty here, just calling it out. I’ve done it too.
But it’s different here. At home, yea- there ARE programs in place to help people where you can volunteer or donate money instead of giving a dollar on the street. Whether that makes it right to ignore the need or not, I’m not going to get into.
But here there are no programs in place. There aren’t soup kitchens. If you don’t have food… you don’t eat.
I am having to rewire my conditioned response about how I handle being asked for money. I’ll call out some less than flattering thoughts I’ve struggled with on this topic:
– Am I going to be taken advantage of as a “rich woman with endless resources”? What if people keep asking me for more and more money? How will I handle it? What do I say? What is the right thing to do?
– I also have that voice in my head that I can’t do it for all the kids, so I shouldn’t do it for any. I’m here to volunteer and help, and that is how I can best contribute.
I’m trying to be patient with myself as I work through these thoughts. I’ve been watching how the other volunteers deal with these things, and many of them do get small things for the kids. Some of them seem as unsure as me.
The first day I went to homework club, I came back tired and honestly – unsure if I’d be able to get myself to go back every day. It’s absolutely optional to go, and usually only seven or eight of the 20+ volunteers here go on any given day. Others will go into town to swim or stop at the grocery store, or stay home to do laundry or work on something for their placement.
In short? It’s not unusual to fill your afternoon with something else.
I’ve had to encourage myself to keep going. I don’t want to regret not going, and spending my time here avoiding the discomfort.
Luke? He thrives at homework club. The kids love him. He plays games with them and it seems to come easier for him. He doesn’t seem to struggle with being asked to buy them things, and I admire how he handles it. I’m trying to duplicate his technique, but it’s still hard for me.
For the most part, kids are thirsty and they ask you to walk to the market with them to buy water. There is none available at homework club and many of them don’t have water bottles – not even the basic ones I mentioned at the beginning of this post. They are also hungry and ask if you have food, or if you could buy them some. If you bring paper, they all want some. If you give them a pen, they get super excited.
So back to the conditioned thought – “I can’t do it for everyone.”
Lukes thought? You don’t have to. It’s clear which kids have nothing. His response? He CAN get water for these kids. It’s like…fifty cents a bottle. Water is not a treat. It’s not Coca Cola or sugary juice. It’s an absolute basic need. His response to being asked for food? Yes. He CAN get these kids something to eat from the market. Not sweets or corn puffs, but something with like, real nutrition.
I am learning from him here. Today we had homework club, again it was hard. I did have a great time working with one of the students on English and I feel like we made some progress! But I was also asked to buy one of the kids a belt, another wanted a calculator, another even asked if I could buy medicine for his tooth.
I still just don’t know what to do about this. I mean, these are all such basic needs. But I’ve also seen what happens when you start buying things. They ALL need something, and it’s all legitimate stuff.
How to handle this all will come with time, I think.
In the meantime, I’m trying to give myself credit for continuing to go. I’m starting by telling myself that by showing up, I can help. Even if I don’t always know how to handle things.
I can teach them math. I can teach them English. I have a few kids who have started to come to me each time I am there to learn more complicated addition and subtraction problems. I’m learning their names, and I make sure I bring paper to share so that no one is left out.
When I’m struggling with going, I just keep thinking about how I’d feel if I didn’t go back. It gets me to go.
Yea… I won’t fix any of these bigger problems. But I never expected to either, and there is definitely no one else that expects me to.
I’m learning a lot being here. As for homework club? I went to three of four of their meetings this week. I’m happy I went.
It gets a little easier each time! (A little…..)
Until next time-
We are proud of you Katie and Luke. You show your love for the kids every time you go that extra mile, but take care of yourselves too.