But last Thursday served as a sobering reminder. I went to do a couple of home visitations to learn more about two children whose guardians had brought them along to the centre in the hope that they might gain a place here.
The first was Christopher, a young lad who is three years behind in primary school. Both his parents died about two years ago, and he has lost all his brothers and sisters to HIV/AIDS. Despite the tragic losses, it transpired that the boy was provided for by loving grandparents, who sent him to a private school rather than the cheaper government options. We strongly believe that children should not be taken away from a caring family environment, even an extremely poor one, and as such it is likely that Christopher will remain where he is.
The second visitation of the morning was rather different, however. With no name or address, we travelled up into the mountains towards a small village looking for a man known simply as the ‘crazy alcoholic’. Everyone knew who we were asking after, such was his notoriety, and before long we surely came across him on the roadside, raging drunk.
En route to his house we asked about his daughters. We already knew that Francesca, the older of the two, was twenty years of age as she had brought her younger sister Hannah to The Peace Centre in the hope that we would take her in and they could both escape the beatings of their drunken father. The old man was not very forthcoming when we inquired about his daughters. Eventually when we asked him what his youngest daughter’s name was, he said he couldn’t remember. I don’t have the best of memories, but I was absolutely flabbergasted – not to be able to recall the name of his daughter of eight years was beyond imaginable.
When we arrived neither of the girls was at home. We spoke to a neighbour and it became clear they regularly have to flee the house and she sometimes gives them a little food and a floor to sleep on. Francesca only completed primary school before her mum died, and since then has dropped out and works the fields to provide food and clothes for her little sister. There was also a suggestion that she ‘is forced to do things she does not like’, in other words she has resorted to prostitution as a last recourse in the fight for survival. There was a lock on her bedroom door when we visited the house, which we later discovered was there to prevent her father from pocketing her earnings and blowing them all on cheap firewater.
Talking to the girls when they returned to The Peace Centre the following morning was upsetting, with both of them shedding tears as they elaborated on their mother’s sudden death and their father’s descent into alcoholism. Their reticence belied a resourcefulness and courage brought about through sheer desperation. Francesca was anxious to set her younger sister free from the chains of a life of being neglected and abused. In fact it was only in order to protect Hannah that she herself had not already left home.
Indeed, one of Hannah’s teachers had commented that he “would be happy to see that repulsive man dead” so that, as a total orphan, Hannah could be taken into care elsewhere. Having a father was worse, in her case, than not having one.
It shook me. Most of all it shook me when I was reminded that little Collins, Alex or Lucky, already enrolled in The Peace Centre, enjoying soft beds, electricity, running water, regular meals, and, most importantly, the loving family environment, came from similarly harrowing backgrounds. I had read all of their stories before. I had edited them and posted them on our website, even. But to see these little bundles of joy each day being playful, being cheeky, just being children, you would not know what they have been through, and that is testament to the marvellous staff at The Peace Centre.
Though saddening, it was important for me to get a glimpse into Hannah and Francesca’s story – it reminded me that there is a way out.
We have in theory accepted Hannah for a place in The Peace Centre, subject to further checks and the necessary paperwork for custody. When Gloria brought her back from her HIV/AIDS test at the Health Centre, Peace handed me the carefully folded doctor’s note without saying a word. My heart missed a beat, as the sombre expression on her face suggested it was going to be positive. I had to read it about three times to make sure before allowing myself to breathe a massive sigh of relief – Hannah is HIV negative, and hopefully has a long and successful life ahead of her.