About the same time we moved back to the slum, 'Doug' and his daughter moved to a room behind our house. His wife had died of breast cancer a few days prior. We knew the family as they used to live near our team-mate and we had helped them access treatment for his leprosy. We squatted with him outside his new house, and he told us about the harrowing past few weeks.
“We have public health insurance,” he said. That’s an achievement in itself, given the bureaucracy involved. “But the hospital had run out of blood. They told me to go and buy eight bags from the blood shop.” A bus ride later, he found blood, but baulked at the price: $50 per half-litre bag! Where was he going to find that sort of money? He normally makes a living by peddling small toys for children, going for perhaps 10c-a-piece. Somehow he scraped together enough to buy two bags, and he hoped they wouldn’t spoil on the hot bus-ride back to the hospital. “But the blood just poured straight through her. It was no use.”
Two days later his eleven-year-old daughter said she had seen her mother outside, beckoning to come to her. “I told her it’s not possible. Mamma is no longer here”. At this point he wiped his eyes, a rare sign of emotion in our neighbours here, who see more than their fair share of death. Left with nothing, the two of them moved to this bare one-room unit to save money.
Not too long after this we organised a zoo trip, taking advantage of the unusually empty roads caused by an annual national celebration. We invited Doug and his daughter along. “I haven’t been to the zoo in twenty-four years” he said. As it happened, 170 000 others had the same idea, making it the zoo’s busiest day of the holiday period. It was even forced to close its doors temporarily in the middle of the day as the park was full. Apparently a good number of children were separated from their parents during the day. Needless to say, it was an exhausting trip!
One of the challenges of being out in public like this is managing the attention our girls get. Most people here have only ever seen blonde hair on their imitation Barbie toys or in advertisements as a symbol of health and prosperity. In one encounter near the end of the day, a balloon seller elbowed her way to us, keen to practice her English. We didn’t want to buy a balloon, but she insisted on giving one to our daughters anyway, “because I like!” she said in English. Of course the younger of the two then kicked up a fuss because her balloon wasn’t pink. Meanwhile Doug's young daughter, who didn’t get anything, stormed off in tears. Who can blame her? So much in her life seems unfair right now.
We persuaded our oldest to share her balloon, to everyone’s relief. Later that night we explained that our young friend's mother had died last week, and that it was important that she was kind to her and do things like share the balloon.
“But the lady gave the balloon to me!” our daughter said.
“And why did she give it to you and not the other child?” we asked.
“Because we have white skin and they have black,” our daughter replied.
“Is that okay? What does Jesus think about that?”
Her young mind began to connect the dots. Conversations like this makes raising kids in a slum almost seem worthwhile. We don’t need to use abstract words like “human rights”, “racism”, “global injustice” – such concepts are played out in simple everyday life.
“Maybe we can give her money,” suggested one of our girls. After more processing about how that might not always be helpful, they decided they would be friends with the young girl, “because Jesus loves her too, especially because she is sad and lonely.” There is more we can do to help her and her father during this time – teaching her to cook, for example, since without the mother in the home they only eat what junk food they can afford.