Monday, 19 October 2015

Neighbours in need

We walked from the road, following the little girl along indistinct dusty paths through the brush, to her home, in a remote sun-parched area of rural Kenya. Her mother sat within a small enclosure, its boundaries marked by a low hedge of thorns, with the girl's three brothers. Nearby, a goat nuzzled at the family's dishes and plates, stacked in a roughly woven basket. When she saw her family, the little girl ran ahead of us, and I watched as she shared the cereal bar I had given her with her eldest brother.

Her mother sat demurely, as her daughter ran up, and it took me a moment to realise that this was partly because of her disabled feet, which faced in the wrong directions. I felt awkward to have turned up, like this, and could sense her embarrassment, as she readjusted her brown skirt about her ankles, to better hide her feet.

In the glare of the sun, the family's home seemed painfully modest and fragile. A thatched mud hut, through whose walls the wooden framework showed, here and there; a tangle of fabric the only door. As the leader of our group sat with the mother, and played with her children, Mrs Tom, a local community leader, invited me to enter the house. I had come along to help record the work of the charity that was supporting this family, and the school that the little girl attended, but I still felt that I was intruding on these people's lives. The mother gently encouraged me to go in, and I followed Mrs Tom through the doorway, into the dark room.

It was just one room, perhaps a third the size of my far from grand living room at home, and it was thick with a fug of smoke from the fire that burned in one corner. Above the gently smoking embers hung a small cooking pot containing stewing beans. To one side of the tiny cramped space stood the parents' bed, a makeshift curtain of clothes the only dividing wall between their space and the other large bed, where their four children slept. As my eyes adjusted to the murk and darkness - there were no windows - I began to make out the objects that were stuck into the eaves of the wall; old porridge stirrers, arrows, a kettle, a machete.

We had been in the community for about a week, and had seen the mothers walking their children to school, but this was the first time I had got so close to a family, and their normal lives. For all the expectations that I might have had of culture shock, visiting this remote, rural and desperately poor community, the thing that had struck me the most was how fundamentally alike we were. It should not have been a surprise; that these people were perfectly normal people, with whom I had a great deal in common, but we are conditioned, sometimes despite ourselves, to think of people as very alien because they live in a different place, or in a different way.

As I took in the tiny space inside this family's home, however, I could feel something welling inside me; in clumsy terms, I suppose it was a sense of injustice at the fact that these people were living in such basic conditions, in genuine hardship. Combined with this was a terrible sense of impotence at the scale of their poverty and at the odds that were so cruelly stacked against them. Back outside, I did my best to engage positively with the children, but I was aware of my own quietness, as I struggled to assimilate the experience. Finally, we handed out toys for the children, said our goodbyes and walked back along the sandy track towards the road. As we did so, it took me by surprise to realise that I was crying, despite myself.

There is so much to be done, in this world, that it can feel like an impossible task to achieve anything. Things can be done to bring positive change, however. We just have to allow for the fact that a small change for the better is infinitely better than no change at all. Whilst, individually, we can only do so much, when we combine our forces, our good intentions, and our resources, the effect can be greater and more beneficial than we can sometimes imagine.

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