Elizabeth is just 11 years old. When she was six a social worker found her on a rubbish tip. She’d run away from home with her younger brother – away from horrifying circumstances that must still haunt her. At the time, she’d been living with her grandmother, along with other members of the extended family, in a traditional Zambian home, a small circular hut made of mud blocks dried white by the sun, roofed with dried grass, and an outside set-apart area used as a latrine. No plumbing; no sewage pipes; no electricity, of course.
The social worker who found Elizabeth and her brother on the tip took them to a government transit home, where abandoned children are taken into temporary care. From there, Elizabeth and her brother were settled into the SOS Children’s Village Lusaka, Zambia – housed in one of 15 brick-built homes with facilities, where in each house 12 children are loved and cared for by an SOS Mother. So when one day, several years later, Elizabeth came to leave her SOS Children Village, along with her SOS Mother, on a day’s trip to visit her grandmother, still living in the same mud-built hut, Elizabeth had a mature understanding of what she’d been through that belied her years.
Potentially, it was a hugely emotional experience for her. But Elizabeth was determined to face up to it. She wants to grow up to become a journalist and, camera in hand, she was out to prove, even at such a young age, that she could be stoical. She would find her grandmother; she would interview her grandmother about her own younger years; and she would do so without crying.
Patiently, she waited outside the hut as her grandmother appeared from working in the fields. And then, suddenly, there she was, bounding forward, smiling broadly, welcoming Elizabeth and remarking how much she’d grown. Her grandmother is aged 52, a quite remarkable age in a country where life expectancy for women is in the early 40s. She was surviving – just. She said she couldn’t afford to eat more than one meal a day; and that she hadn’t eaten bread for two months. The chickens running around were beginning to reduce in number as they were slaughtered for a special meal. But it wasn’t just herself she was struggling to feed; it was also the 10 grandchildren who lived with her in the clean and tidied hut where grandmother slept on a mattress and all the grandchildren slept huddled together on the dirt floor.
Grandmother had had five children herself, but only one had survived HIV-AIDSs. Every time she went to a family funeral she brought home another grandchild or two. She had so many, and there was now so little room, that grandmother was building a second hut nearby her own – block of mud by block of mud. She didn’t know when it would be finished. Her plan was to house the grandchildren there.
When Elizabeth saw the poverty her grandmother was living in, her face went serious and she went quiet. Later, she said she was shocked to see how desolate her grandmother’s living conditions were compared to her own at the SOS Children Village. But she was pleased that her grandmother appeared happy – like so many Africans living in desolation, grandmother smiled big, beaming, white teeth smiles, sang out loud ‘I’m so happy today’ in her local language, and danced for joy outside her home, celebrating Elizabeth’s visit.
Elizabeth did her interview; asking grandmother about what life was like in Zambia when she was Elizabeth’s age; how her grandmother lived now; and what her grandmother’s hopes were for the future. And, if there had been in Elizabeth’s mind before she went any follow-up questions about how she came to suffer so terribly as a younger child; or how she could have ended up on a rubbish tip with her brother; that was all swept away by her emotions: the shock and the joy.
Back home in her SOS Children village, Elizabeth said she hoped to go to see her grandmother again. But you have to wonder whether she will: grandmother is now at a ripe age by Zambian standards and her rasping cough suggests tuberculosis (although others say it’s asthma). And with a meagre diet, dependent mostly on whether she can chop wood to burn for charcoal which she sells, there will come a time when she can carry on no longer. When grandmother dies, the grandchildren will need to be cared for by extended family members, or the likes of SOS Children’s Villages.
But maybe, just maybe, Elizabeth has done what she set out to do: in her secret self, she may have punctured one of the many nagging issues in her young life – that need to ask why such things could have happened to her; whether she herself was somehow guilty; how others could have allowed things to happen...
Elizabeth (her name has been changed to protect her identity) was accompanied on her visit to her grandmother by an SOS Children UK colleague who was at SOS Children’s Village Lusaka to help develop a new ‘Our Africa’ website, reflecting the lives and experiences of African children, told through their own eyes – to celebrate the 40th anniversary of SOS Children’s work in Africa.
**Please note some details have been changed to protect the child