The wretched of the earth…. but who cares?!

I drive past these semi-permanent houses on my way to work. Each time I see a little boy in the same dirty rugged cloths, playing with younger, seemingly better dressed children. I wonder if he goes to school or has parents. The Ghetto song (1969 by Elvis Presley) comes to mind, increasing my sense of guilt, as I fly past with my son safely tucked away in the backseat. Each time, I feel the urge to stop and ask him a few questions but time waits for no man…..that is until one time, I see him no more. My heart tightens in a knot, fearing that he might be dead; out of neglect, or a drunken kick perhaps?

After three days of not seeing him, I sum up some courage in the early morning to drive over to a rundown house about where he lives. A lady in the backyard is feeding her child on beans and cabbage at that odd hour, but at least it is a healthy diet. I ask about the rugged child. She knocks on some little shack by the house and out comes, not one, but three little children and a very pregnant mum. They are very dirty, the middle child hosting a white-foam-like fungal infection all over his head. Seeing the shock on my face, the lady explains, “There are many other kids like that here…give it another hour and they’ll emerge from those shacks around this house”. 

It turns out there are a number of ladies living in these cramped mud stalls that formerly housed market kiosks; now earmarked for demolition. For now, it is free accommodation until government’s decision to revamp the area. The majority of them are street workers, and nearly all their children are born out of prostitution.

I walk back to the car half relieved that the child has a mother, but not sure he’s any better off nonetheless. I wonder how to help. His mother is a street worker that infected him with HIV at childbirth. His two siblings are HIV negative, thanks to modern medicine. The next time I pass by, most of the women are by the roadside with hungry looking, barely clad children. Perhaps I am seeing them for the first time because I cared to look.  I can’t shrug off this feeling that I’ve opened a can of worms.  

Thinking I could do draw on my project planning skills, I organise a meeting with the ladies to understand their crucial needs. But their pained hopeless look was more than I had bargained for. 60% of them are HIV positive. One of them was a fruit vendor until her basket got nabbed by security agents. She has never recouped her business since. Others were lured to town by family or friends that let them down. They cannot be helped at local level because they have to return to their villages where purportedly, there is better support. 

Another has failed to make it in the city and is afraid to go back to her village with children to support. The mother of the little boy has one eye, the other taken out by his abusive father.  Nearly all of them have boils all over their skin, caused by the swamp water they use for bathing, and of course of the HIV infection. When asked if they had eaten, they laughingly pointed at their neighbours that had not come for the meeting. ‘They worked last night’, they said, ‘we see them cooking’.  Desperate for some income, they work for as low as 500 francs. 

Behind the loud alcohol induced verbosity, the pain in their eyes is almost tangible. They are desperately poor, filthy, spited…simply the wretched of the earth. They accept as normal the sneers and awkward looks, and drown themselves in local beer to avert their shame, even if for a little while. The drunken fights are often. Their children seem attuned to this of environment.

An NGO that supports street workers gives them work for two weeks. The neighbouring residences are profusely thankful. The ladies haven’t fought for a while; too tired after a long day’s work to bother with anything else.  I am absolutely pleased with this outcome. Despite the negative comments about them, they have proven that given a chance, they can be useful hardworking citizens like the rest of us.  The struggle is still on. I will not give up on them, because I am also a woman; just lucky to be more privileged.  

Recently, a mother of two lost her life…to abortion. Another one gave birth to a baby girl born from prostitution. And its Mama cries.  It’s the ghetto song all over again.  

In the Ghetto 

As the snow flies

On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’

A poor little baby child is born

In the ghetto

And his mama cries

‘cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need

it’s another hungry mouth to feed

In the ghetto

People, don’t you understand

the child needs a helping hand

or he’ll grow to be an angry young man someday

Take a look at you and me,

are we too blind to see,

do we simply turn our heads

and look the other way

Well the world turns

and a hungry little boy with a runny nose

plays in the street as the cold wind blows

In the ghetto

And his hunger burns

so he starts to roam the streets at night

and he learns how to steal

and he learns how to fight

In the ghetto

Then one night in desperation

a young man breaks away

He buys a gun, steals a car,

tries to run, but he don’t get far

And his mama cries

As a crowd gathers ‘round an angry young man

face down on the street with a gun in his hand

In the ghetto

As her young man dies,

on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’,

another little baby child is born

In the ghetto.

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