Growing Up in an African City
Population growth rates in sub-Saharan African countries are among the world’s highest. There each woman, on the average, gives birth to more than six children. Poverty, deteriorating environment, and scarcity of resources only add to the hardship. Here is a firsthand account of what life is like in that part of the world.
I GREW up here, in a major West African city. There were seven of us children in the family, but two died early on. Our home was a rented bedroom and parlor. Mother and Father slept in the bedroom, and we children slept on mats on the parlor floor, boys on one side of the room and girls on the other.
Like most people in our neighborhood, we didn’t have much money, and we didn’t always have everything we needed. Sometimes there was not even enough food. In the morning, we often had nothing to eat except reheated rice left over from the day before. At times even that was scarce. Unlike some who reason that the husband, as the wage earner, should have the biggest portion, with the wife next and the children getting what’s left, our parents would go without and let us children share what small amount there was. I appreciated their sacrifice.
Going to School
Some people in Africa believe that only boys should go to school. They feel that it is not necessary for girls to go because they marry and their husbands take care of them. My parents did not hold that view. All five of us were sent to school. But it was a financial strain on my parents. Things like pencils and paper weren’t much of a problem, but textbooks were expensive, and so were the compulsory school uniforms.
When I began to go to school, I did not have shoes. It wasn’t until my second year in secondary school, when I was 14, that my parents were able to buy shoes for me. Mind you, this doesn’t mean I had no shoes at all. The only pair I owned was for church, and I wasn’t allowed to wear them to school or any other places. I had to go barefoot. Sometimes my father was able to afford bus vouchers, but when he could not, we had to walk to and from school. It was about two miles [3 km] each way.
Washday and Fetching Water
We washed our clothes in a stream. I remember going there with my mother, who carried a pail, a bar of soap, and the clothes. At the stream, she would fill the pail with water, put the clothes in, and rub soap into them. Then she would beat the clothes on smooth rocks and rinse them in the stream. After that she spread them on other rocks to dry because they were too heavy to carry home wet. I was young at the time, so I was assigned to guard the drying clothes so that nobody would steal them. Mother did most of the work.
Few people had water piped to their homes, so one of my chores was to go with a bucket to fetch water from an outside faucet, called a standpipe. The problem was that during the dry season, many of the standpipes were locked to conserve water. On one occasion, we went one full day with no water to drink. Not a single drop! Sometimes I had to walk miles in search of just one bucketful of water. Carrying the water on my head for such long distances wore away my hair where the bucket rested. I had a bald patch at ten years of age! I am glad to say that the hair grew back.
Children as Security
Looking back, I would say our lot in life was average, perhaps even above average for our part of Africa. I know lots of other families whose living standard was far worse than ours. Many of my friends at school had to sell at the market before and after school in order to bring in money for their families. Others could not afford to have something to eat in the morning before school, and they would leave home hungry and be in school all day without food. I can remember lots of times when one of these children would come and plead with me as I ate my bread at school. So I would break off a piece to share with him.
Despite such hardships and difficulties, most people still like to have large families. “One child is not a child,” many people here say. “Two children are one, four children are two.” That is because the infant death rate is among the highest in the world. Parents know that though some of their children will die, some will live, grow up, get jobs, and bring home money. Then they will be in a position to look after their parents who have grown old. In a land with no social-security benefits, that means a lot.—As told by Donald Vincent.