The Hidden People


From Welfare Recipient to Active Citizenship

Imagine being so poor that you shrink back from the daylight and live in the darkness of a make do shelter – a shack. A shack dweller among shack dwellers, the poorest of the poor is your lot in your community. Imagine being so poor that you feel naked in front of your neighbours – as if their eyes can see right through you. So poor that, when you can, you drown your sorrows in some cheap wine and you can’t rouse yourself the next day to get the children to school. Anyway the school clothes are dirty and shoes broken or missing. Your children’s noses are running. There are sores on their legs and insects in their hair. They scratch and sniff and cry. Imagine being so poor that today you may have to join others who search in the rubbish bags outside suburban houses. You would rather hide yourself from humanity. Those who pass your shack make their disapproval known with clicking tongues. The baby cries. There is no milk formula. Mix some flour with water is your desperate idea to get him to suck his bottle. Your head hurts. The shack is dark. You shrink back further into its cover. Hiding there with no hope.

Sit there sister! Sit and ponder. Shuffle around in the dark. It’s only the wine that will help you step outside into the light. You will be brave then. You won’t care about the stigma then. You will laugh then, you will cry and you will shout. Shout, sister to all and sundry who pass you by! Shout out the anger that consumes and disempowers you. And when you come to your senses sister, shrink again. Shrink down into the insignificant person you feel yourself to be. Unnoticed by the buzzing world out there, shrink back into your hiding place. You have disappeared to those who don’t care.

CATCH initially worked from its site which is half a kilometer from the target community. CATCH activities focused on care, support and training of children and parents with the emphasis on HIV and AIDS. To improve the work with the children CATCH staff began to visit homes and families in the community. We came to the conclusion that the clients who visited our site and the homes we visited, although extremely poor, were not the poorest families in the community. We were not working with the poorest of the poor in Mzamomhle. We decided to search for those who did not present themselves to us nor attend any events or campaigns in the community.

The right person is needed for such a job. Vanessa proved to be this person. She is energetic, focused and has a warm, sensitive personality. She had to display courage and have hope. She walked into the deepest recesses of the community and found seventy “hidden” families. And so began a small but significant change for these families and for CATCH.

“Hello, mama you there? May I come in mama? It’s me, Vanessa, from CATCH – just a little chat”. She gained access into the homes of these hidden people and indeed into their hearts. She gained their trust and soon 70 women, a couple of men amongst them, visited CATCH every Thursday morning for 3 months. Thereafter the meetings became fortnightly for the next 3 months and eventually monthly meetings. Attendance and participation by the clients was high. The group named themselves “Siyakhula” which means “We grow together”

This is what took place:
Every family made 2 vegetables gardens on the site at CATCH
They received life skills training. It was remarkable to us that some of them were totally ignorant about HIV and AIDS
School uniforms were supplied to 20 children who had dropped out of school because of this fact and they were able to return to school
Every Wednesday for nearly a year Vanessa accompanied between 5 and 10 people in a taxi to town. The purpose of these visits was to access vital life documents such as identity documents and birth certificates, the next stage being applications for child grants and pensions – a right not yet claimed by our clients
A monthly food parcel was supplied to the families while they awaited the arrival of grants.

Accompanying the clients to town in order to access documents and grants was a challenging exercise for Vanessa who had to visit several different government departments on the same morning. Although government officials had from time to time visited the community, the hidden people had not emerged to make use of these opportunities. They felt intimidated by bureaucrats who can at times be perceived as harsh and dismissive.

For the clients, the visits to town were somewhat wondrous. Comments and behaviour which Vanessa observed were: “I havn’t been to town for years” or “Look how many people are in town” and “Look at all the shops – there’s Checkers”. “Vanessa, I am scared to cross this road”. “Vanessa please stand in the queue with me”. Vanessa became their advocate and displayed assertiveness which brought results. When officials declared they had lost applications or were unable to help she stood her ground. She won the favour of some officials.

There was rejoicing when the first grants arrived for these families. One little girl boasted to Vanessa “Mama bought this dress for me”. It was the first item of new clothing the mother had been able to provide for her 5 year old child.

The group began to speak about how they could help others in their community. They made plans and carried out a monthly visit to the school which they swept, scrubbed clean. The school principal was impressed and grateful. The Siyakhula project proved a success. An impact had been made on the lives of the group members. They appeared more confident, had received their rights under the law and a small group of children had returned to school. They enjoyed improved nutrition. The members had gained awareness around HIV, Rape, Child Abuse, Substance Abuse, Human Trafficking, Rights and Responsibilities etc. Importantly there were members who presented themselves for HIV testing. The group had shown an inclination to help their community by enthusiastically cleaning the school. What should happen now? The group decided to become an active group in planning and implementing actions in the community which could improve the lives of children and families. They were warned that there would be no payment for their work and also that CATCH was no longer able to supply food parcels. Forty people out of the original seventy elected to continue training and serving others in the community. Siyakhula was a forerunner of the current Masikhanye Project where 70 volunteer women train a further 400 women every week in the community. Leaders are emerging from this group of women. These women will bring positive change into the community, change which benefits the poor and vulnerable children amongst them.

Volunteering as an activity undertaken by very poor people is challenging for both the volunteer and the organization. Poor people who are without employment are consumed with the challenge of daily survival. The challenge of getting food on the table for their family occupies a caregiver’s time and mind. How successful can an Action Forum be? We have noticed that when a client recovers a measure of confidence and self esteem, the chances of employment improve. However the rate of unemployment in the area in which we work is over 50%. Those who are employed enjoy only one or two days work in a week.

What is the reward then for the women who serve their community without payment? Could one believe a sense of belonging to a significant group? Recognition by others in the community as a trainer or activist? Increased self esteem through learning? Influence among peers and neighbours? Development of leadership skills which bring increased status in the community? The writer wonders whether these incentives are sufficient? The women’s action forum has stood the test of time. The project has shown us that what began as a welfare outreach to the poorest of poor has become an opportunity for community development through active citizenship!