Tag Archives: streetkids

Us (not “them and us”)

12 Jun

This is an amazing film about the work of Umthombo.

Umthombo is an NGO that wants to challenge the negative stereotypes enshrouding street children. The images of glue-sniffing victims – once so popular – have been replaced by a new mantra: “surfers not street children”. (And we could replace the word “surfer” with a number of others: skateboarder, student, champion…)

The label “street child” has become a dirty word in South Africa. It has widened the gap between “them” and “us”. Street children are seen as “the other”. They are “not like my children”. They are “criminals”, “dangerous”, “to-be-avoided-at-all-costs”. They are, quite simply, “not like us”.

This short film, and the work of Umthombo, challenges these preconceived, socially constructed beliefs (lies). It reveals how lives can be transformed when determined, compassionate people scavenge amongst that-seen-as-rubbish by wider society, refusing to believe that any life is beyond redemption.

Yet this transformation comes at a price; it’s not easy working on the frontline.

I know – I used to work with Tom (founder of Umthombo) many years ago. Yet the cost – the tears, tiredness and traumatic days – is worth it. One changed life is worth it.

Umthombo needs our support. These kids need our support. After all, they are surfers. They are skateboarders. They are champions. Not street children.

Who am I? Where am I?

8 Jun

It’s been a long time since I put fingers to keys here. I am not sure why. I have been busy – yes. I have been away on a work trip – yes. I have been seeking, but not really finding, inspiration – yes. But these things have happened before and it hasn’t kept me away from the blog. This time it has.

And yet now, as I sit here, there is so much that I want to write and I don’t know where to begin. There is too much I’d like to say and yet I don’t know how to say it. The words were, for a while, inaccesssible; now they are competing for my attention. I don’t know which ones to choose first.

Maybe I will begin at the end and work backwards.

I am in the US at the moment on a work trip. I have been here for two weeks and I love it! I have met some incredible people – people who have chosen a different path and live on the periphery. People who keep me awake at night as I try to absorb the conversations we have had. People who are very “ordinary” and, in so being, somehow become extraordinary.

Last night, I was chatting with two of these people, two new friends. Both are academics – one a professor in post-modern philosophy, the other completing her masters in reconciliation, trauma and gender. I found that, as I talked about my days in academia – from 2003 until 2008, whilst I studied for my Ph D – a dormant part of me was resurrected again. A part of me that is usually shelved. part of Becca that tends to stay in a cupboard, in darkness, away from the light. Yet as we spoke – and we had much in common – this neglected part came into focus once again.

My Ph D was – at the time – the most important thing in my life. I saw it as a springboard to great things. Not academia but action. I spent five years thinking about street children in South Africa and the daily abuses of their human rights and, by the end, I couldn’t wait to get my hands dirty. So I went to the frontline, to the streets of South Africa, and dirtied my clean, library-sanitised hands, mind and body. I put the Ph D on a shelf and left the library for good.

When I came back from South Africa a few months later – deflated, exhausted and broken – I wondered why I had bothered. With the Ph D. With the move to SA. With the hours, weeks, years of thinking, planning and dreaming. It had all gone terribly wrong. I had failed. Completely and utterly.

My attempts, a few months later, to find a publisher for my Ph D were similarly impotent. They weren’t interested. I thought I had something to say, something to contribute, but these “experts” did not agree. And so I gave up.

Gave up being an academic. Gave up trying to work on the frontline.

Power is expensive, but words are free

13 Feb

This is a really interesting article about how Cameron and the Conservatives are flailing. Interesting because it’s written by Tim Montgomerie, the man behind the Conservative Home website, whose strap-line is “the home of conservatism”. To spell it out then, if the editor of your most important pro-party political blog criticises you in a national newspaper, you are probably in trouble.

Where did the Tory party go wrong? Some would say they should never have been allowed to govern.

I, for one, did vote for them – inspired two years ago by their commitment to social justice, to the long-awaited political transformation this country needed, inspired by the new message and new faces bringing this message.

Last year, I spent quite a lot of time writing for, and working closely with, someone who is now one of the PM’s special advisers. I was “in there” for a while, or at least vicariously, and I loved it. I ended up writing this article for the Guardian in the wake of the riots, and for a while I felt close to the action. That all changed when I changed jobs a few months ago. And now, in retrospect, I am really, really glad.

Really glad I no longer have to defend ideals like the “Big Society” (I never understood what it meant – and I spent a month writing a policy paper about it!). Really glad I can distance myself from a party that is, I believe, failing – failing to do what it said it would do, failing to listen to the ordinary man and woman, failing to lead our country forward at a time of great economic instability.

For a while now, I’ve been pondering a similar thought to Tim Montgomerie  – how can people who have always known abundance ever truly understand poverty and need? How can the rich (and I mean truly rich) ever get what it is to go without, to make heart-breaking decisions and see your children suffering as a result – simply because you don’t have enough money? How far can human empathy spread?

The thing about poverty is – however compassionate and kind-hearted you might be, you can never truly understand the pain that poverty brings until you experience it yourself. The sleepness nights. The constant worry and anxiety, 24 hours a day hovering over you. The tension it brings into your relationships. The exclusion zone it creates as you watch your friends go out/buy new shoes/grab another coffee/buy healthy food for their children and know that you cannot join in.Poverty divides and isolates. It rarely unites.

Our leaders have failed to understand. If they understood surely they would not be pushing through these deeply unpopular changes to the NHS and our welfare system. Surely they would not be allowing the judiciary to lock up young people involved in riots – impressionable teenagers whose main crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Surely they would not be continuously pushing up the cost of public transport as the service received continues to decline. We have been failed. I feel duped. And it makes me angry. Angry because it feels like we – the general public – are not being listened to.

Yet words are free. I love words. I love it when words are conjoined and sculpted together in ways that give voice to those without power. It does not cost money to use our words to challenge those in power – whether here in the UK, or amongst those on the front-line of opposition in Syria, Russia or Zimbabwe, or globally amongst those campaigning to end human trafficking and the round up of kids living on the streets.

How will you use your voice today? And tomorrow? Let’s no longer allow the powerful – wherever we are in the world – to think they know what is best for those fighting to survive in the face of injustice, poverty and human greed.

A Christmas gift

23 Dec

In all the last minute rush to buy presents, it can be difficult to find time or space to think about those around the world living today/Christmas Eve/Christmas Day/Boxing Day in a poverty from which they cannot escape. Those with no presents/turkey/family/home. For whom Christmas Day is just another day, with no break in the monotony of poverty and injustice.

So, rather than feeling guilty, why don’t we do something to help them?

At the moment, I am chatting with a few friends about setting up an initiative in memory of my friend JJ, a long-term street kid who recently died from AIDS-related TB. I do not want JJ to be forgotten. I do not want other street kids to be ignored, forgotten or silenced any more. So we have been talking about what we could do to break the cycle of street life and street death.

JJ had a daughter, a little girl born just weeks before his death. I want to make sure that she does not end up on the streets, like her Dad and her grandmother. So one little thing we are going to do is set up a trust fund for her – to ensure she can go to school and be given the best possible chance in life.

If you would like to, you could make a donation to help us get the trust fund up and running this Christmas. Just £5 would make a real difference, £5o would make a massive difference.

If you would like to know more and/or make a donation, please email me on beccamcgowanuk@gmail.com or contact me on Facebook/Twitter. I’d love to hear from you. Let’s do something – just a little thing – to challenge injustice over Christmas 2011.

Happy Christmas!

JJ’s old bedroom

37,000? That’s a lot of children

16 Nov

This morning, the Today programme featured a report on street children in Kabul, Afghanistan. There are currently an estimated 37,000 kids living and working on the streets in this city alone – yes, that is right, 37 thousand. They are trying to eke out an existence, trying to survive on the streets of a city – the capital city of a country that has been at war constantly for 10 years. I find these figures astonishing, hard to make real – some of these children will not know what it means for their homeland to be at peace, they have only lived through war. And how do we begin to get our heads round 37,000? These pictures, published by the BBC, give a much-needed insight into the daily reality of 37,000 too many children and young people in Kabul today.

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