Simon didn’t say much. He didn’t have the energy to. Simon (pronounced ‘Sih-mon’ in Afrikaans) is 10 years old but weighs much less than my own 6 year old boy. Who is hardly a big lad himself.
Simon is malnourished. Along with his sister, he is an orphan and sleeps wherever he can find a warm corner in someone else’s shack.
As a small person who has no-one to keep an eye out for him, Simon has several options in life. He could walk the long road to town in Gobabis (not much fun when you are nearly-starving) and there try and beg for a few pennies off people. Or rummage through the dustbins. Or he could stay in Epako during the day and hope that someone, somewhere might find a bit of maizemail (savoury cereal porrige) to eat and perhaps he might also find somewhere safe and not too dirty to huddle down for the night.
Or he could go to school. Simon likes school. He tries to go as much as he can and has been accepted to a school within walking distance from Epako. Unlike many of the children, school is a big attraction for Simon because (our friends in Epako tell us) its the one place where he can be assured of getting something to eat.
But as mentioned in yesterday’s blog – if you don’t have the equipment to attend school – it is almost impossible to go. School uniform is not mandatory (no-one would kick you out of school for not having the clothes) but some of the schools frown upon a child who doesn’t have the uniform. And anyway, would you want to be the only child who doesn’t have the dress or the shirt? (Shoes you can manage without of course … but just to have the one item of school uniform! This is all these kids are asking …)
Schools in Namibia (and in most African countries) also charge a school fee. Again – this isn’t mandatory – but some schools can make it difficult for children to attend if their families don’t pay this fee. Our previous work in southern Africa, with the San Bushmen made it all too clear that the poorest families need advocates who can write a damned good letter for them and stand up for their rights for a fee to be waived.
But back to Simon. The first time that we saw him smile was when he got into the car with my partner. Simon liked the car journey to the shop! And when he got to the clothes store – he and 20 other kids trundled along behind my other half (“I feel like the flippin’ Pied Piper here!”) and then it was a matter of slow little smiles all round as the kids were measured for shoes and various bits and pieces of school uniform and realised what might be happening.
Simon was lifted up and perched next to the cash register so he could watch all of the events unfolding around him. It must have been a strange sight for him. The children from Epako were all waiting patiently in line, some of them already clutching their carrier bags filled with their new clothes. They looked sort of shell-shocked. The shop assistants who had seemed so astonished to see them all when they first marched into the shop was grinning now and talking to Simon, asking him questions about himself. The funny little white girl was rushing about, dragging baskets of clothes and shoes with her father. The crazy white woman seemed to keep losing track of where the little white boy was (“Oh don’t worry – he’s outside doing somersaults with the other kids.”)
But don’t worry folks, I found him! Sure enough, there was my son. Bonding with his new mates thanks to all things boys and yukky (see video clip ‘Bleeugh! Look at my used plaster!’) and whilst my enormous credit card purchase thankfully wasn’t declined by my marvellous credit card company, we took a few minutes to get our breath back and to capture some of the smiles of children with their new items.
Double and Triple Phew!
MORE TOMORROW …