From South Leeds to South Africa – two very different worlds

Poverty in South Africa. - Photo by Steve Evans (Flickr creative commons)

South Leeds Life reader Louise Drury used to work at Middleton-based charity Health for All managing its children’s project and has since worked with disadvantaged kids in Namibia and is looking to live in South Africa. In a special guest post, she writes about the differences in culture and issues regarding, children, education and poverty…

I have been living and working in South Africa for over two years now, the culture and people being a far cry from the experiences I have encountered in the suburbs of South Leeds.

Children and young people in South Leeds have access to schooling, extra curricula activities, holiday programs, counselling support and free health care all of which are government funded. In addition to this there are many voluntary organisations working in partnership offering additional services which address more specific needs such as anger management, confidence and self-esteem and safe places to play. Three years ago I was working at Health for All Leeds managing a project that serviced 375 children and young people per week. As children and young people’s health and welfare were high on the government agenda funding was plentiful and multiagency working enabled many disadvantaged children to benefit. The service was free to communities and enabled vulnerable children to build confidence, self-esteem, learn to play, be healthy and socialise in a safe and secure environment. There were 17 programmes running in different parts of South Leeds with the same children attending each week. It was amazing to see these children grow and learn over time adopting healthier lifestyles, being more confident and positive about their situations and more integrated within their communities.

In contrast, the government and voluntary organisations in South Africa work very differently. The Government have a health agenda which until recently has mainly focused on the HIV and Aids, and TB. It is only in the last 12 months that the health and welfare of children and young people have become more of a national priority as they have recognised that millions of children and young people are living on the poverty line and have little or no access basic health education. Despite this funding is still scarce and there is certainly not enough around to educate everyone. Schools also take a back seat where health is concerned as they have little money to invest in anything other than the standard curriculum. Parents are poor, uneducated and living in squalor so survival is more of a priority to them. So you can see, unlike the UK, a child’s health needs are often overlooked and underplayed by the government, parents and the school system, resulting in common problems such as behavioural disorders and childhood obesity. There are a number of voluntary organisations setting up initiatives in schools and communities but with little funding, programs tend to be short term and only reach a small percentage of the children in need. The majority of initiatives also still focus on HIV and Aids education.

I worked for an organisation called SCORE here in Cape Town that serves children and young people across Southern Africa. Young people aged 16 years+ are placed on a voluntary exchange program and work as sports coaches in rural communities and town ships. The volunteers live in the communities they work and set up sustainable sports provision for the children and young people living there. Their focus is to teach children about HIV and Aids, confidence building, gender equality and leadership using sport as a working tool. The concept is great but unfortunately in reality it is very different. There are no infrastructures in place within these communities making it extremely difficult for volunteers to build relationships with schools, community leaders and the communities themselves. There is one volunteer per community serving over 200 children so this distinct lack of capacity makes it near impossible to build anything sustainable.

This type of program addresses the physical aspect of a child’s or young person’s health and there are other programs in South Africa addressing other aspects of health such as FUSS, a charity supporting children who have experienced a loss. Although good intentions are there, there is a still distinct lack of funding, staff capacity, training and infrastructures in place for children to benefit from these programs long term. Unlike the UK schools, government and parents are still not prepared to invest in their childrens’ future.

I have now experienced working in extreme deprived areas in both countries and despite cultural differences and expectations the basic needs are still the same – consistent good health, self-belief, love and support. Without these things life seems to be an uphill struggle for most as there is no stable place for them to grow. In the UK children and young people have more of a fighting chance as there is more money being invested in them enabling charities like Health for All to offer sustainable provision. In South Africa funding is still scarce and many voluntary organisations struggle to serve the millions of children and young people in need. With child health now being high on the government agenda there is hope that more money will be invested in schools, teachers, communities and of course the children and young people of South Africa so we can start building them a healthier future.