Poverty is a toxic place to live in...
Poverty and working with those who are impoverished weighs heavily on a person. Poverty is a dangerous, toxic place to live...Yes there are bright moments when one sees children being children and playing or when one passes a group of gossiping, cheerful people. And evidence of the human spirit triumphing over difficulties and making something of what little they have.
But in a general way poverty holds people fast in its toils and getting out of it is very hard and often takes luck and support by an outside person or agency. Knowledge is harder to acquire in the land of poverty.
Newspapers, magazines and books are expensive so they are seldom bought, computers out of people’s league so news of the world or just in the next suburb is not known in any detail. TV news does get to people but not every day or even every week with word of mouth playing more of a role than other news ‘mediums’. Many small children only leave their suburb once or twice a year. Many have never seen the sea or even a shopping centre. It is unusual to have been in a movie theatre, a museum or a library. Don’t have an ID number or official address? Getting a library card becomes difficult..
Life becomes very small and lived in a tiny space with very little coming in apart from large brand names that get in everywhere.
So there is a dearth of knowledge and the possibility of acquiring the kind of general knowledge and information that can help someone to make critical and informed choices about their lives and ideas. So a spurious ‘common sense’ starts to rule. And as Einstein said: "Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen." And this poverty is seen even in well off homes if parents are too absent...
It is also a dangerous place to live. Despair, lack of hope, the wish to deaden present misery with drugs and drink, despondency, anxiety, depression stalk everyone in any class but poverty, living on the edge of survival, creates very real, intractable seeming problems and it takes courage to keep striving against them. Poverty, not simply not being rich, but the real kind when life and maintaining it is uncertain all the time is hard to keep fighting.
Children living with adults in this situation are at great risk of not getting even the most basic care they need. They grow up shorter, less informed, less socialised and often with a feeling of being less loved or less important as their parents could not provide for this as well as insuring just their basic survival. With all too often, less empathy, or even sympathy for others. (Just remember that over busy, overly concerned with intellectual development middle class parents are also in danger of producing poor empathy, social intelligence and emotional health and resilience in their children.)
I ask our students such basic questions to ascertain their level of education and understanding. Gravity is an unknown concept, many do not know the name of the vice president, the IEC is to blame for general ‘problems’, answering questions with more than a yes or no is at first impossible when they are faced with a simple comprehension exercise, Piaget’s tests to show the concrete thought of pre-schoolers indicate that the students themselves still think in intellectually concrete ways. And most of these women have South African matrics...
As soon as one takes off the ‘romantic glasses’ and the idea of politically correct ideas of poverty one can look at it squarely and see what it does to peoples spirits and why it must be eradicated. It causes human misery on a huge scale but it also creates social problems that effect everyone in a country. One is only as strong as ones weakest link – and if your weakest link is extreme poverty (45% of South Africans are not food secure) you are not a strong emerging democracy – and things can still go wrong.
We need to get our care of the 0-7’s living in poverty improved on a huge scale. Only programmes that include every parent living in poverty pre-and post natal-ly in both aid to feed and stimulate and also with support to help them to support their own baby’s emerging personhood with love and care will really help. Survival needs to be assured so that parents can do their parenting better and without the fear of falling off the edge to contend with at all times.
And only play and experience based pre-schools and ECD’s , with teachers capable of forming real relationships with their charges will ameliorate the effects of poverty and protect against the toxic by-products of poverty. By seven our brains have done most of their growing. We are learning more and more how the brain is shaped in real, discernable, minute, profound and complex ways in early infancy and childhood by the environment.
A pre-schoolers personality may not yet set in concrete but the trauma of poverty may have already set the child’s brain and personality in ways that bode very ill both for themselves and for those who share a country with them.
So we all need to pull together and make South Africa a place where to be a child is to be protected, loved, cared for and provided with a good developmental start.