Suzanne Parsons learned some important parenting lessons in a Tanzanian shantytown.
We traipsed through a maze of mud huts. The ground was dusty. Skinny goats stepped over heaps of rubble and mice scuttled in and out of gaping doorways.
The families we’d come to meet had nothing. But they knew how to treat a visitor. Their children had no shoes and barely any clothes but they scampered busily to find us something to sit on – a sack, an old crate, anything – as guests should not sit on the bare mud floor.
They might have been the same age as my own children, Calum and Olivia, then aged seven and 11. It was hard to tell; chronically malnourished children don’t grow well. My own kids were back home in Cheshire, with their dad. Probably scrapping over the iPad or lamenting a poor choice of biscuits.
“My trip to East Africa was transformative. It changed how I think about my own family life and it made me utterly determined to do the best job I can at work.”
I never imagined when I returned to full-time work that I’d find myself on a tour of a Tanzanian shantytown, 6,000 miles away from my kids.
Although my children were still young, I’d been inspired to go back to full-time work when I was offered a job with the charity Railway Children – which supports children living on the streets in East Africa, India and the UK.
My career had taken a fairly corporate path until that point but somehow the opportunity to work for a children’s charity made me feel more positive about the time I’d be spending away from my own kids.
I was joining the charity’s marketing team, so I never expected to have much involvement with the frontline work, especially outside the UK, so I was delighted to be asked to travel to Tanzania and Kenya in 2013 to work with the charity’s East Africa team on its communications strategy.
I was excited about the trip but also apprehensive. Reading about children on the streets of East Africa doesn’t prepare you for seeing them right there in front of you.
We met tiny children with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Some were cheeky, others were quiet and watchful; some were ready to play, but a few just wanted a lap and a cuddle. They were just kids – like my own kids and their friends – but the situations we found them in were dangerous and shocking.
I’m haunted by the memory of a little boy called Michael who the outreach workers found wandering the streets of Kitale in Kenya. He was six: about the same age as Calum. He was horribly malnourished – tiny and frail, with a round, bloated belly. His parents couldn’t afford to feed him. As a mum I just can’t imagine how that would feel to have no food to give your child.
Michael was so hungry that he’d just got up in the middle of the night – no shoes on his feet – and walked 20 miles over two days looking for food. The outreach workers took him to the emergency shelter. We started to play with him and tried to get him talking. I had a chocolate bar so I gave it to him. He just looked at it, completely baffled as to what to do with it. A state of innocence that didn’t last long!
My trip to East Africa was transformative. It changed how I think about my own family life and it made me utterly determined to do the best job I can at work. I always went the extra mile but now I’ve got this incredible reason to.
Its effects on my own children have been even more dramatic. Calum and Olivia are incredibly proud of what I do and they’re so interested in the children we’re helping. I’ve talked to them about my trip a lot and they can’t get enough of stories about our work.
Since I started working for Railway Children, they’ve become obsessed with helping people. They won’t let us walk past a homeless person without giving them money.
Olivia’s on a mission to befriend anyone she thinks might be lonely. Calum would give away every penny of his pocket money if I let him. We recently discovered he’d been running up huge phone bills with his mobile phone by sneakily sending ‘text to donate’ messages to charities. He spent £40 in one month!
Going to East Africa was the most emotional rollercoaster I’ve ever been on. It was inspiring to meet families whose lives we’ve transformed, but at the same time I despaired at the size of the problem.
Railway Children urgently needs to expand its work in East Africa. Our new appeal, ‘If I Grow Up’, contrasts the aspirations of children brought up in safety in the West with the expectations of children living in terrible danger on the streets of East Africa. For those children it’s not a question of ‘What will I be when I grow up?’; it’s ‘Will I grow up at all?’
Calum wants to be a policeman when he grows up and Olivia’s planning to become a fashion designer. At Railway Children we want EVERY child to have a chance to be whatever they want to be; to grow up and do something that uses their unique talents. I’ll do everything I can to help Railway Children reach more and more children who urgently need our help.
All donations made to the If I Grow Up appeal before 22 January 2016 will be DOUBLED by the UK government. To donate, go to ifigrowup.org.uk.
How YOU can help children on the streets today
Until 22 January 2016, all donations to our If I Grow Up campaign will be doubled by the UK government. So we’re having a huge push to encourage people to donate now, while their money will go twice as far.
We’d love it if Standard Issue readers could get behind our If I Grow Up appeal by donating, taking part in our social media campaign and encouraging their friends to join in too.
On social media, we want you to share photos of yourself holding up a sheet of paper with your childhood ambition on it (or the dream you still haven’t let go of). Get your kids involved too if you like.
It would be great if alongside your photo you could cram in the hashtag #ifigrowup, a tiny explanation of what’s going on, and an appeal for your followers to share and, most importantly, donate.
Here’s our best shot at a suggested tweet. You might be able to do better!
I want EVERY child to grow up & to dream. Please donate at ifigrowup.org.uk and share YOUR dream. #ifigrowup
Suzanne Parsons is a mother of two and CSR partnership manager for Railway Children, www.railwaychildren.org.uk.