THE ‘NO FOOD’ POSTER
Picture children playing on the school playground. All the laughter, giggles, screams, yells and occasional cries leaves you yearning for your tender days. You look over your shoulder, surveying the area for any other adults in sight. You spot a colleague and you quickly rethink joining the children. But you keep on watching them, a smile slowly forming at the edge of your mouth because there is nothing more pleasant than the joy and laughter expressed by these little angels.
Lost in your world, you do not hear as a teacher slowly advances towards you. She talks but you cannot make out her words, all you wish for is her silence. She is now an intruder in your perfect moment. She taps you again and you turn around. You cannot ignore her; well your parents brought you up to be cultured.
She does not express the same joy as you while watching the children. She holds her cheek instead in sadness, you are intrigued. Being the ever curious self, you waste no time in enquiring if everything is okay. She shakes her head and sighs. She looks into the distant as if she too wants to get lost in thought.
She then looks at you, wondering how oblivious you can be to what is in front of you.’ The children’s laughter is because of the hope they have. Your coming today, signifies that tomorrow there will be food for lunch’ she explains. Immediately you are embarrassed. You and your colleagues did not bring any food. Your pockets are shallow; they cannot afford food for over two hundred students. Slowly your smile fades away.
She points out to the poster on the kitchen window. It reads ‘no food’. ‘That poster has been there for the most part of the term’, she says. ‘Well, not that poster per se, but like ones,’ she adds. The school cannot afford lunch for the children, heck, it cannot even afford to fix the broken windows and doors that now act as the school’s trademark.
So you take a second look at the children, promising yourself to be keener. You see a boy donned in a brown shirt. ‘Isn’t that supposed to be white?’ you ask. Your disbelief is clearly written all over your face as she turns to tell you of how she too had spotted a boy in a similar shirt. When she reprimanded him, he meekly answered ‘nguo za kubadilisha ndio sina’ (I do not have a change of clothes). She had since learnt not to ask the obvious, and sadly, so have you.
A child trots to where you are standing and holds your hand. You slowly look down, smiling at the child. Just as you are about to ask for her name, she quickly scampers away. You notice that her dress is torn, and you can see her thighs almost her buttocks. Just then you notice your male colleague who has just joined you trying to look away. He too is not sure whether what he saw was real or a flicker of his imagination.
As if that is not enough, the teacher points you to another short boy. ‘He always tops my class’, she says. She talks very highly of him, expressing her pride as a mother would of her son. She tells you that he never misses school. Just the other day, he had fainted during a mathematics lesson. He had not eaten for days, she tells you.
His parents cannot afford to put food on the table each and everyday, so they send him off to school. Not to reap the sweet fruits of education, but in order that he may get something for his grumbling tummy. They are not aware that what awaits him is a ‘no food poster’ instead of a handful of beans and maize.
His is not a unique story; it is the same with most children in the school. No supper and ‘strong tea’ for breakfast is the lifestyle they know best. On lucky days, the ‘strong tea’ is laced with a tinge of sugar. Having taken breakfast, the kids are then sent off to school a few kilometres away. For these children, school breaks off at 3p.m. They are neither near nor done with the syllabus, but how can you keep starving children in school claiming that the fountain of knowledge will satisfy their hunger?
You decide to talk to a boy standing close. You ask him what his dream is. He looks at you and says that he wants to be a chef. Interested, you ask him why. “So that I can have plenty to eat and give my friends”, he answers. You are lost for words wondering how ones dream can be food, just food. But how can you blame him after what you have seen and heard? The children here are taught to share what little they have, not out of cultivation of the value of generosity, but because it is necessarily as a survival tactic. You cannot hold the tears any longer, this could be your child, you think to yourself.
You are fighting back tears, and so is your colleague. But the children you bleed for are happily playing, hungry but happy. You envy them; you remember the trivial things that easily take your happiness away. Yet in the midst of all these problems, these children have hope. Hope is what fuels them; hope that tomorrow there will be smoke coming from the kitchen and the ‘no food’ poster gone.
Just earlier in the office your colleague had asked you what your proudest moment was and you got frustrated that you could not pin point one huge achievement. “Why am I so selfish?” You ask yourself. You vow that next time anyone asks you of your proudest moment, you will talk of the time that your heart broke; the time that you saw the ‘no food’ poster; the way that those kids opened your eyes to a world that you were totally oblivious of, or rather that you chose to ignore.
There is no shame in lacking, you conclude. So you decide to do everything in your power to brighten their smile, a smile that does not bespeak of hope, but of satisfaction. Vowing to always live by Edward Everett word’s, ‘I am only one, I cannot do everything, but I can do something, therefore I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do’.