South Africa: Dreams denied

the Save the Children reception centre at the South Africa-Zimbabwe border
Containing the problem: the Save the Children reception centre at the South Africa-Zimbabwe border

The 12-year-old girl seemed OK at first.  She was telling me how just half an hour earlier she had walked up to the Save the Children reception centre on the Zimbabwe-South Africa border near Mesina. How she’d come from Beitbridge on the Zimbabwe side and led her 9-year-old sister across a mile or so of ‘no-man’s land’ bush to reach South Africa.  She said she’d left behind her blind grandmother – her only carer it seemed, after her mother had died and her father had ‘run away’.  She said she had come because she and her sister were hungry.  She seemed barely aware of the risks she had taken, crossing a wild stretch of land where gangsters rob and rape the desperate people climbing through holes in the border fence in search of food, shelter, safety or a better life.

She smiled as we talked, as I told her how her name was similar to my own daughter’s, and as she explained how she wanted to return to her grandmother in a few days.  And then suddenly, mid-sentence, she stopped talking, stopped smiling, turned and walked away, returning to the middle of the small group of children who had made the same journey. Had some awful thought or memory flashed through her mind, something I could only imagine? Or had she simply decided she didn’t have to be the brave big sister anymore?  I let her go, knowing that at least for now, she was safe, in the care of my colleagues from Save the Children.

Ever-present shadow of Zimbawe

As on many occasions in the last day or two, I felt proud. Sad, and proud. A little earlier I’d met a seventeen-year-old boy, who said he was a cattle herder from further north in Zimbabwe.  He had come over the border because he couldn’t find work and had been told he would have a better chance here.  But he found there was no work this side of the border either, and he was planning to make the trip further into South Africa.  He had a relative in Johannesburg and wanted to head there. Little chance of cattle herding in South Africa’s biggest urban sprawl.  Such are dreams pursued, and dreams denied.

A boy tells me his story
A boy tells me his story

Zimbabwe is the ever-present shadow over the rural town of Mesina, which, in other respects, looks like many other small African towns.  Someone told us that half the newborn babies in the local hospital are born to Zimbabwean mothers who come over when they are pregnant because of poor and expensive health care back home.  The education, health and child protection systems are under strain, which is why Save the Children is here too, working with the local authorities and other partners to try to stop children falling through the net.

Our staff here tell me the work never stops — they are called on their mobiles when unaccompanied children are spotted, and they rush to find the children before they are picked up by others who want to hurt, not help them.  The calls come day and night.  They’ve had a slight surge in the last few days because the school holidays have just started in Zimbabwe and children are on the move.  But it’s better than it was: a year or so back, there was a short period when hundreds of children were sleeping on the ground by the Save the Children office in Mesina.  Here, success is measured in disasters averted and crises overcome.

We also dropped in yesterday on a training session for medical professionals run by Save the Children as part of our EVERY ONE campaign. We walked in to hear the facilitator wrapping up the first session saying “So we can save many more children’s lives can’t we, and we can achieve the Millennium Development Goal in South Africa can’t we?”  “Yes,” they all replied firmly (and one of the group quietly added “with resources”).  They couldn’t have scripted it better for me if they tried.  It briefly crossed my mind that that is exactly what they did.  I said a few words to the group, pointing out that the success or failure of our campaign will be determined not by summits in London or Washington, or even in Pretoria, but by these dedicated professionals and their work face-to-face with the mums and children who need their knowledge and support.

Football is everywhere in South Africa

I arrived in South Africa on Tuesday after an overnight flight from London to Johannesburg and then a short hop on a 26-seater plane up to Polokwane. The plane was smaller than the airport transit bus that took us to it. I talked football on the way with other passengers. Football is everywhere here. You don’t have to say “Are you looking forward to the World Cup?” You just say “So, 2010?” and people smile and nod and strike up a conversation, about the stadiums, the English Premier League, the stars of Bafana Bafana and so on.  In fact football is part of the reason why I’m here too. At 4.30 this morning I left Mesina for a two hour drive to Polokwane, where I flew back to Johannesburg and am now heading on to Capetown. The football world is gathering there for tomorrow’s World Cup Draw, and I’m joining the team of the 1GOAL campaign, who are down there building on FIFA’s support for the campaign’s push to get millions more children into school for the first time as a legacy of South Africa’s World Cup.

The airline magazine has a cookery section with a recipe for Beetroot and Honey-Glazed Springbok (which the woman next to me says is delicious).  On another page there’s a list of quotes from faith leaders and inspirational historical figures about peace and stuff.  There’s Plato, Mandela, Thomas Jefferson… wholesome stuff for an in-flight magazine, only slightly jolted by the inclusion of some words of wisdom from John Farnham (yes, the 1980’s big-haired Australian soft-rocker).  “We’re all someone’s daughter.  We’re all someone’s son.”  Not strictly true of course, if you’re being pedantic, but that hasn’t put off South African Airways from putting those words from “You’re The Voice” into their list of quotes to leave their passengers uplifted even after they landed.

And, in a way, it sort of works.

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