By Jedi Ramalapa
October 2013. On the 31st of August during a fundraising event for the Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY) Center, Charlie called me “mama” and I was so touched to hear this – I didn’t even know I yearned so much to have a child of my own or that I had hidden secrete desire to be called “Mama”. And there he was, ready-made, calling me mama and I took the bait. It wasn’t much but he came to me saying his hands were dry and I had a number of hand lotions. I physically oiled his hands, with natural honey face cream, vaseline-hand lotion, baby oil, all the lotions I could find in my bag and then some. I bought him food – hot-dog- he in turn looked after my bag. For a day I could pretend that I was actually his real mother. I was a guardian to someone, was responsible for somebody’s existence. Somebody needed me, wanted me, somebody’s life depended on me. For a day I fully belonged somewhere – to someone, at least in my mind.
I first noticed Charlie during my day visits to SKY while making preparations for the fund-raising-event. Unbeknown to him he got me at my softest, softest spot the very first time i laid eyes on him – through his books.
I was sitting out in the sun taking pictures of an artist painting a portrait of the late midwife and Kliptown community worker and builder Eva Mokoka on the wall of her former house (which she used as a community clinic). I was also taking pictures of sister Ntombi and Gloria who were busy cooking the days’ meal on an outdoor fire, with extreme dedication and focus. They spent the whole day cooking!
I was truly minding my own business when Charlie arrived back from school, neatly kitted out in full school uniform.He me greeted respectfully and stood to stare at the evolving picture of Eva Mokoka, in what I read as complete admiration (see above) and then he proceeded to go the book storage/container kept outside bob’s door – I assumed they kept their home-work. He took his books out and proceeded to show Jabu and other volunteers his work. They all sounded impressed with his achievements. I thought wow, at least they are getting something right.
So I was already in love with Charlie by the time he uttered that four letter word. Mama. I wanted to adopt him, make him mine. I already had thoughts of having a constant, loyal companion ( life can be unbearably lonely sometimes, when you are me: -an independent, single, childless ,uncompromising woman), travelling the world etc. I told my brother that Saturday. “Something amazing happened today – Charlie called me mama” I exclaimed. He just looked at me and smiled his beautiful big eyes. I had now found another solid moral reason to exist.
The next day, Charlie watched me gather my things and asked me where I was going, and when I would come back. He wanted me to stay he said. “When people come with bags it means they are staying” He said removing a piece of paint from the wall. Mama I would like you to stay he said. It broke my heart to leave him there in that place like that – what kind of “mama” am I? I felt as if I was betraying him, abandoning him “again” – taking away his only chance at being “loved, cared for”.
When I returned to last SKY and this time to stay I was looking forward to seeing Charlie and to spending more time with him. But Charlie had disappeared, he was nowhere to be found, nobody knew what had happened to him. I was quite surprised and shocked that nobody seemed too bothered about his where abouts. People just moved on.
I asked everyone what happened to Charlie. The the story slowly emerged that Charlie was not the sweet little boy I had met or thought I knew. Charlie always dressed neatly in the morning as if going to school, while in actual fact he would go elsewhere, and spent days only God knows what in Johannesburg’s CBD. He must be around 12 or 13. I didn’t know him well enough. Never had a detailed conversation with him actually. I did not ask any questions. He was a great performer, and he knew exactly what to say to get the right response from adults. It was his MO they told me, to disappear into thin air. “He always used to lie to me about going to school, ha uCharlie!’ they exclaimed. But has anyone even tried to search for him to find him? i asked softly, hesitantly, trying not to sound worried, alarmed or disappointed. “Yes, we went to his school and found that hadn’t been there for weeks, even though he woke up every morning going to school and back”
I realized then that there was no point in burdening my little heart further inquiries of Charlies whereabouts. It seemed to me right then that life for people at SKY is highly transient and unpredictable. Members of the “youth club” came and went as they pleased and there was no one who was the wiser about the goings’ on the children’s lives except perhaps bra Bob Nameng who understandably shared very little about the people’s personal histories. They were accountable to no-one, and no-one could be held accountable for their disappearance. At the time there were no records of how many children lived at SKY, when they came in or when they left. Somebody later added “Maybe he is at the suburbs with a relatives, an aunt or something”. I slowly began to realize that though they may indeed be vulnerable and be troubled – the children and the youth at SKY were not necessarily “orphans” and I should not get emotionally involved thinking they had no one, even if they were, orphans, I could not “save” anyone let alone myself. SKY is a free thinking society. ‘Here you are free to be and express yourself, no one can be the judge”.
Now that I have time to reflect, I can see how easily children can be used or manipulated. How they also quickly learn to manipulate if such behavior is rewarded. Food is often used to lure children ( even adults) to do all sorts of crazy things. Children are beautiful and innocent – and that is why they will always be so vulnerable, they learn by doing what you are doing. They repeat often, always and almost without fail, the same things you say to them or to others in private or public as truth. They are sponges that take in everything – especially behaviour. They emulate. They are what we make them. They didn’t ask to be “born” or exist. So you place them in conditions that would generate untold sympathy from ‘adults” who see themselves reflected in their innocent eyes, and hope to somehow use the children as a way of attaining some form of salvation – healing or “good karma”.
Mothers begging with infants on the street is becoming a common scene on the streets of Johannesburg. People may not sympathise with you as an individual, but for the sake of the “innocent” child they will give you something, do something which you as the bearer of the child will invariably benefit from their “donations” anyway since you are the custodian. Both men and women (consciously or subconsciously) to get their way in life sometimes, to stay together or to separate, in divorces, in marriages, use children to justify their actions “I’m doing it for the children” is always the righteous response of people who insist on staying in toxic relationships, having children when they know they are in no position to take good care of them, to gain power, hoping that they can “change” people and sometimes they do, but often people don’t change for anyone except for themselves.
It tore me up inside when in Dakar and St Louis in Senegal. So many children as young as two years old with huge bowls begging on the streets at all hours of the day, working, while their parents stay at home feeling sorry for themselves. Life on the streets is no childs’ play and I think that children who live like that in many ways are no longer children, they grow up, they become mini hardened adults. In South Africa, I have seen and observed how women with children – used them as pawns to keep and or control men, get cash, have a roof over one’s heads, get married etc. It works because men want to fertilize the world with their seed, leave some kind of a legacy. In some cases children have become real life-sized dolls, their personal toys, mini-mes, machines. ?Things people – someone they can finally have “control” over, indoctrinate , brain wash. A “second” chance at creating a life you never lived. Your very own creation, personal DNA – your blood that you can direct, control, this is what children have become.
Their innocence is continuously being manipulated by everyone. Everyone “says” they “care” for children because they are “innocent’ but most often as with everything else they are just using them to fill a void, to “get” something and when they become “too-much” we abandon them – discard them – blame them, for everything. For money spent or wasted after they fail to become our perfect creations. We do all this to suit our personal needs, dreams, to make us feel “better’ about ourselves. Who has the children’s best interest?
Children are a dream for advertisers or anyone in business, who wants to make a quick buck – ‘for the children”. They are fertile ground to plant all kinds of ideas good and bad. Children = money. Everyone wants to give to children… something or inversely everyone uses children to gain some advantage in life, women do this more than men.
It’s a dangerous trend ( even though it’s part of human nature to have children) a fait a compli. I just shudder when I see how people treat children today. I am scared almost to live in a world where these children will be all grown up, all-knowing and seeking revenge.
It’s easy to want to help, to be a do-gooder, to feel good about our good deeds. But I think we should all ask ourselves more honestly, really interrogate ourselves critically and honestly answer the question why? We do what we do with, for, on behalf of children? Is it really for their benefit? for the benefit of the individual child? Or are we part of a machinery that is producing children who will become machines, clones, extensions of our super Egos? Capitalism, society, is creating people machines and soon machines will be more valuable than human beings. A computer rarely questions your motives and reasons. You press click and it does what you want, if it fails, you can always get another one. It reminds me of a verse in the Bible where some general was asking Jesus to heal his daughter, Jesus asked him if he believed, and he said “I am a man of authority, I have servants under me. I tell this one to go and he goes, and I tell this one to do this and he does it. Just say the word and I know my daughter will be healed.” We want to live in a world where can remote control people like we do machines, robots. We want people we can have complete and “absolute” control over – children are easier to control and manipulate because they are completely powerless. We want people to obey us, to have authority over, we need to be needed, wanted. So we practice with our children and used them as an experiment for our failed lives, projects. We want to own them like a prized pair of expensive shoes, which we use step on still regardless of their value. Charlies’ disappearance made me realize how easily I fell into the trap of trying to “own” someone so I can feel “worthy, needed, wanted, to leave some kind of a “legacy”, “immortalize myself forever” . Out of all the selfish things that we humans do and are capable of the need to live vicariously through other human beings, to decide on people’s destiny’s to rule over and to control them; make them do our bidding – must count as the most despicable and deplorable of them all.
- Charlie and the Sky Factory (sowhatsart.wordpress.com)
- A Twisted Heritage (sowhatsart.wordpress.com)
- The Story Behind the story…. (sowhatsart.wordpress.com)
- OF MICE and MEN: “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry…. (sowhatsart.wordpress.com)
- Please Don’t let me be misunderstood… (sowhatsart.wordpress.com)