I could not believe my eyes when I walked through the narrow dirt pathways between the hundreds of rickety tin shacks in the township of Khayalitisha in South Africa. A beautiful African girl, not much younger than me, wearing a pale pink skirt that casually hung below her hips and a white, dirt-stained tank top, led me to Sekwamkele's hut.
Sekwamkele and I met the first day I began volunteering at his preschool. My eyes had been quickly drawn to his sparkling glare and sincere smile. The hut was no bigger than 144 square feet, which is roughly the size of an average public restroom. The family of four shared a queen-sized bed, and the only other pieces of furniture were a bookshelf and a table. It was hard for me to even imagine living like this, as I come from a seaside suburban town in Rhode Island, United States, and go to school at a college-prep boarding school in Massachusetts.
It is horrifying to imagine that almost half of the world (over three billion people) live on less than $2.50 a day, while the richest man in the world can spend a million dollars a day and still live well for the rest of his life. In a world where money translates into power, the majority of people are not fortunate enough to have sufficient funds to stay afloat. The middle class is quickly disappearing and falling through the cracks, leaving an even greater divide between the rich and the poor.
Unfortunately, the cycle of poverty is very hard to break. A major reason for the growing numbers of poor people is the bad quality of teaching that most children receive around the world. Almost a billion people who entered the twenty-first century lack the ability to read a book or write their name.1 This substandard quality of teaching does not provide students with the basic information needed for maintaining a job in the real world. Especially right now, with the economic and unemployment crisis, a lot of people are in need of financial aid due to the lack of job opportunities. Many are looking for work but, unfortunately, those who need money the most lack the tools and skills that make good employees. Thus, they tend to lose their jobs quickly and end up right back where they started. Many people in the townships want to work, but they just don't know how.
Unemployment is much higher for women than for men in South Africa. Philani, an organization that functions in six townships, devotes itself to helping women make a living, support their families, and escape the cycle of poverty in a way that also makes life in the townships better for everyone. These citizens are some of the most soulful and passionate people, and it is a shame that more people don't get to experience their amazing personalities because of the fear of entering the townships. In spending a lot of time at the Philani centre in Khayalitisha, I met Narsassana. She told me how hard it was to keep a job, take care of her five children, and make her way out of the township lifestyle. Narsassana was hired by Philani to work in their Educare preschool programme.
As if it were not hard enough for Narsassana to find employment, her house is constantly being broken into and the few items she owns are stolen because the burglars know she is away from the house all day. She explained the hardships of simply going to work each day: "I leave every day to try and make a living for myself, but every night I come home and my house has been broken into," Narsassana said. "I had to send my children to live further away with my mother because it was unsafe for them to live with me when I leave."
What Narsassana does every day is courageous and challenging: just to make a living for her family, she sends her children away to keep them safe and then leaves her house vulnerable to robbers. Philani encourages all of their outreach workers, like Narsassana, to inspire each and every woman living in the townships by going right up to their front door and telling them their personal stories about how they are changing their lives on their own, without help from a man.
As the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow, it becomes increasingly evident that downsizing and maintaining a simpler lifestyle is becoming more common. While there are 2.2 billion children in the world, 1 billion of these live in poverty.2 Unfortunately, changing these statistics is going to take time, but we have to start by educating people and giving them opportunities to start new lives for themselves and their families.
1 Anup Shah, "Poverty Facts and Stats," Global Issues, 10 September 2010, http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats. 2 ibid.