Saturday, July 15, 2006

Children Without a Childhood

As we pull ashore each beach on our fishing boat, a pack of smiling children runs to greet us. The happy faces and screams of Mzungu (white people) make for a joyous welcome. However, the dark reality sets in as one takes a closer look upon the heads infested with fungus, the tattered single pair of clothes, and the lack of any guardian within sight; that these are children fighting to survive on their own. These faces bring to life the cold number of 10 million children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

Unlike in the US, there is no governmental safety net for these children. The extremely lucky are taken in by remaining family, usually grandparents. The very lucky are taken in by other families in the community who have the money to support additional children (it is not uncommon for a family to have up to 3 orphan children in addition to their own). The lucky find their way to an orphanage that usually provides schooling and sometimes 1 meal a day. However, many are left to fend for themselves at a very young age. These orphans band together in packs, and it is not uncommon to see a 6 year old caring for a 1 year old who is clinging to her back.

Primary school often brings the few joys of the younger years. We were approached by many children without clothes or food asking not for money or a meal, but instead for books. After primary school, the fees charged prohibit the majority of students, and nearly all orphans without family support from reaching a higher education. Even the best and the brightest students are funneled into the poverty-ridden industry of fishing.
When not in school, children are often found at the lake scrubbing pots and pans, carrying buckets of water, or chopping and collecting firewood from high atop the mountain. We encountered the children in the picture above upon a 2 hour hike to the top of Mfangano Island. These children were carrying ~100 lbs of wood they had chopped at the top of the mountain down a rocky hike in bare feet. The firewood would be sold for 50 Kenya shillings, the equivalent of less than a dollar. When you see how difficult their lives are and how hard they work, it is sometimes easy to forget they are children. However, bring out something as simple as a balloon, frisbee, or soccer ball, and you will see faces light up and flocks of giggling youths. You soon remember that these are indeed children; children who have been robbed of a childhood.

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