Essays: My African baby |
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My African baby

by Vicki Woods

Some years ago, my husband began to receive letters from a foreign part; letters he was careful to crumple up and hurl out with the junk mail before I could look at them. I bided my time, as the women’s magazines advise wives to do, until one day he left one lying about, whereupon I read it. And when he came home, I asked him, ‘Who the hell is Kennedy Mamai?’ and he got very cross.

The letter I read was an airmail letter, a ‘bluey’, written in pencil by a child. It was addressed ‘Dear Sponsor’, and showed a picture of a lorry, a car and a hut. Under the pictures was written, in careful print, ‘Truck’, ‘Car’ and ‘My house’, and below that, ‘From your grateful sponsored child Kennedy Mamai.’ In ball-point pen, at the bottom of the letter, was a three-line space for a class teacher’s report on Kennedy. It said, ‘He is average in most subjects. Conduct: Good.’ On the back was a printed return address that said, Action Aid, Kenya.

My husband was embarrassed by my reading the letter. In our house, it’s known that he is ‘against’ organised charity. He has always refused to fill in the sort of forms that are hopefully handed over by children asking their parents and friends to put themselves down for 50p an hour or £1 a mile for famine aid or body scanners in West Berkshire. I have to fill in two boxes and hand over double the money for sponsored school silences and so forth. I don’t know why he is ‘against’ organised charity, since he won’t explain, except to vaguely indicate that it’s a matter for the Government. It’s a hangover from his childhood. His mother was a priest-ridden Irish Catholic; his father was a Clydeside communist who wept when “Uncle Joe” Stalin died.

‘You’re the last person I’d have thought of to sponsor a Kenyan child for Action Aid,’ I said. He said, ‘I know. Forget it, will you? It’s a banker’s order every month and I told them I didn’t want any letters.’ I wanted to know what made him take out the banker’s order, and he said evenly that the advertising – carefully angled to strike a sentimental chord – had worked. A picture of a wistful, wide-eyed, stick-legged child, gazing hopefully to camera, the same age as our son… who was capering around the garden on hundreds of pounds’ worth of mountain bike, whose first terms prep-school fees would feed an Indian village for a decade.

Because my husband habitually chucked them out, I saw Kennedy Mamai’s letters only rarely over the next six or seven years. He stopped drawing pictures and learned to do joined-up writing with a biro instead of a pencil. Sometimes he wrote what were clearly class exercises: ‘Here at Aboloi we have some rain and we are planting millet, from which we make ugali. It’s our main food in this area.’ Sometimes he asked questions: ‘Before I prolong this letter, I would like to ask is there any rain where you live? Please write me how many children have you. Once he said, ‘I get enough to eat.’ My son, writing from prep school, wrote as assiduously, but at greater length, about food, e.g. Hanford-Johnson (as it might be) had ‘given Wilson II his hazelnut yoghurt which was past its sell-by date and Wilson II is in sick bay so now Hanford-Johnson is afraid that Wilson II has botulysm!!!’

Action Aid began sending more and more mail to the house. A shiny magazine, shrink-wrapped in plastic, arrived intermittently. It was full of sixth-form-level journalism about good work done in distant parts, with pictures of women in craft workshops (abroad) and pictures of Brownies holding sponsored walk posters (in Britain). The glossy package made my husband grind his teeth but we didn’t discuss it. It became apparent that he’d been passing the odd airmail bluey back to Aboloi Primary School. Kennedy began to misaddress him as Dear Mr Wood, instead of Dear Sponsor, and continued: ‘Here comes nobody but your beloved child Kennedy Mamai’  and ask how our son was doing and whether he had passed his examination to the next standard. One November, as we sat doing an early wrapping-and-labelling exercise, my husband sheepishly produced a football which he wrapped up and banged off to Kenya with enough sweets inside to poison a whole primary school with E-numbers. Kennedy’s Christmas letter came and went with no mention of the football. The following summer, a huge, torn, peeling, rattling parcel was delivered to the house, covered in stamps from half the nations of Africa. Kennedy’s football, returned to sender.

The last letter came in January. It wasn’t written on a bluey, but on lined paper, clearly from a school exercise book. It was very long and chatty. ‘Dear Frank,’ it began, ‘hello! How are you? For me, I’m very fine with the family, I received your letter in very good way and condition on 5 November 1990. There were 12 pencils and two pictures. I say thanks to you.’ Pencils, eh? It continued in great detail about exams and schooling (‘I will go for more knowledge to join any institution, eg polytechnic’) and family history (Our family is consist of two mothers and one father. All these mothers have twenty-two children and my mother had thirteen, nine boys and four girls’) with many pen-sucking interpolations such as ‘There is nothing more important that I can tell you’ and ‘I have no more that I can prolong’ that letters from schoolchildren always contain. He wished his beloved sponsor a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Over the page were two PSs, as follows: ‘NB. One time you ask me the number of our family. And you got no reply. The number which was given to you was wrong and it was me who wrote the letter but my classmate when I was sick.

‘Also, my mother has a problem of seeing. She can see everything but when it comes on reading she has a problem and knows how to read very big words. I wish you could solve that problem.’

I drove to Boots and bought a pair of over-the-counter magnifying spectacles for a tenner, hoping rather desperately that the ‘problem of seeing’ was simply short sight and not anything horrible that glasses couldn’t solve. I posted them to the address that Kennedy put on the top of his letter – not ‘Action Aid, Kenya’ but a PO box number for Aboloi Primary School. I typed a letter explaining that it was difficult to choose spectacles for someone else and that if they didn’t work I would send a magnifying glass to hold over the words. I signed it ‘Frank’. Weeks passed, and I forgot about it.

Then a letter came for my husband from the director of Kenyan Action Aid, in March. I retrieved it, as usual, from the chuck-out pile of junk mail. It said, ‘I am pleased to inform you that Kennedy has successfully completed school and is now equipped with the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed in adult life.’ It explained that his sponsorship had now come to an end, but that Action Aid’s on-going work in his area would continue. It enclosed a colour photograph of another child, bright-eyed, wistful, stick-legged and clutching a raggedy schoolbag. This was Ngotu Ndunda, who attends Makalele Primary School in Ilyusa sub-location, Kitui District, where he is standard 1. ‘There is no need for you to do any further paperwork,’ says the letter. ‘If we do not hear from you within four weeks we will assume that you would like your sponsorship subscriptions transferred.’

I was rather shattered by the letter. Kennedy is about 14. What about those plans of going to any institution, e.g. polytechnic? What will he think about the abrupt cessation of his occasional letters from Dear Frank, his beloved sponsor? Will his mother get the spectacles? Will he write again? Will he be able to get a stamp, even?

Tucked into the Action Aid envelope was a question-and-answer leaflet for novices. I think they’re relatively new, along with the glossy magazines. In answer to the question ‘Can I correspond with the child?’ the leaflet says, ‘Please send only picture postcards as these are more easily understood.’ In bold print, it goes on: ‘Please do not put your address on letters and cards to children. Children love to show their letters to others in the community and they could fall into unscrupulous hands. You might then receive unauthorised letters asking for help which might cause distress.’ In answer to, ‘Can I send gifts?’ the leaflet says No. ‘Not all sponsors would send gifts, creating inequalities between children. Some sponsors might send gifts which are unsuitable in nature or value which might confuse or disorientate the child and family.’ The leaflet also says that postage is unreliable and recipients might have to pay customs charges. I went back to Kennedy’s last letter and looked at it with a hard eye. Was it even from him? Or from an unauthorised, unscrupulous hand? Had the 12 pencils confused and disorientated him and created inequalities between him and his classmates?

On rereading, I decided that Kennedy had no problem with his classmates if they were prepared to cover for him when he was on a sickie, even to the extent of making up the numbers of his brothers and sisters. His letter sounded like all his other letters, chipper and schoolboyish.

But nevertheless I was filled with gloom. For eight years we have devoted – if ‘devoted’ is the word, and it probably isn’t – a minuscule portion of our available monies, time, quasi-parental feelings and sentiment to a small boy in Kenya who needed it. The money was urged out of our considerable Western capitalist pile by skilful advertising, inertia marketing and vague feelings of guilt. The organised-charity phrase, always used in speechmaking by Chairmen of the Appeal is: ‘We’re so lucky to have so much… we feel it’s time we Gave Something Back.’ I’d enjoyed reading his letters (those I could filch from the junk pile) and watching his writing improve, and sending the odd one back: ‘Here is a picture of my house, Kennedy. It has thatch on the roof, made from corn stalks. Many houses in my district have corn-straw on the roof’ and so forth. I had felt pleased, in a small way, to have Given Something Back.

Now I feel as embarrassed and snarly as my husband always has. It feels pathetically stupid to have extracted a sentimental pleasure from the business of sending a lamentable pittance of a monthly allowance, a grain of sand, to alleviate world poverty. Kurdish babies die in a corner of the kitchen; 20,000 Bengali corpses float across the screen; starving Somalis stare into the camera. Kennedy Mamai leaves school with literacy and numeracy skills and Ngotu Ndunda will soon be sending a bluey addressed to Dear Sponsor and showing a picture of a hut, a car and a lorry.

(Spectator, 11 May 1991)