10 minutes to inequality

In the Eastern Cape, a ten minute drive is all it takes and you feel like you’re in a completely different country. Kieran O'Brien, Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF Ireland reflects on a journey in South Africa. UNICEF Ireland and The Cathal ...

South Africa is a country of contrast and diversity. A country where children have equal rights under the constitution, but the worlds into which they are born and their opportunities in life are very unequal. It’s seldom that such dramatic inequality is so visible.

In the Eastern Cape, a ten minute drive is all it takes and you feel like you’re in a completely different country.

UNICEF Ireland and The Cathal Ryan Trust are here supporting the Isibindi Safe Park network.  As well as supporting children at the safe park, Child Care Workers visit the homes of vulnerable children and young people from their community.

We’re in Mthata on the last day of our visit and Florence, an aptly named and professionally trained Child Care Worker, is taking us to meet 23 year old Nobuhle and her four year old daughter Phiwokuhle. We’re running 10 minutes late, but Florence phones ahead to let them know.

“Without her – I would not be alive”

As we enter the their tiny, dark, damp hut Nobuhle welcomes us, but doesn’t make eye contact, Phiwokuhle frowns and runs to Florence – clinging on for dear life.

I had prepared a list of questions, but Nobuhle spoke for so long unprompted we didn’t need to ask any. It’s obvious she has been waiting a very long time to talk about Florence.

Rather poignantly, she began by saying that without Florence she wouldn’t be alive. Before Florence started her daily visits they were in complete disarray. They were sleeping on the floor. There didn’t have a table or a bed; there was no lighting and no hygiene facilities. On her first day, Florence brought Nobhule and Phiwokuhle to the Department of Social Development to advocate on their behalf. They demanded a daily food parcel, a welfare grant and a school uniform for Phiwokuhle. It took a while but with follow up and perseverance, it eventually came through.

Planning for a better future

A few weeks later Nobuhle bought her first bed. Florence now visits every day to ensure that Phiwokuhle is going to school, the house is clean and Nobuhle is on track with her plans. Nobuhle works part-time and is saving to buy a house. She is determined to give Phiwokuhle a better chance than she had.

As we say goodbye to Nobuhle, a colleague comments to me that being ten minutes late didn’t really matter. We get on the road and, in no time at all, we’re in an affluent area with nice houses, gardens, cars and healthy children with broad smiles. That’s when I realised what a ten minutes’ drive means to people like Nobuhle. If she had been born into a family living ten minutes away, she would be going to bed tonight in one of these homes. But she won’t. Her bed is in a shack. She will wake up tomorrow worrying about who owns the land she lives on. Her day will be spent beating out aluminium panels in order to provide a better life for Phiwokuhle.

The lottery of birth has been tough for Nobuhle, but she’s got a determined spirit and a strong thirst for life, which I’ve no doubt will help her get back on her feet. As we drop Florence home, she embraces me with the kind of hug that makes your heart grow. Nobuhle may not have a house or a good job or many opportunities, but with our continued funding she has Florence, at least for now.

Kieran O’Brien is UNICEF Ireland’s Deputy Executive Director