Abject poverty can be very erosive. Over the weekend, I experienced a level of poverty that has eaten away the moral compass of the young people we were helping. We were running our annual project of helping learners from impoverished families to cover their books.
We used two classrooms as our working stations. As each learner walked in, I personally gave them the necessary resources, which included paper cover, plastic cover, seal-tape, book labels, a pair of scissors and a pen.
I strictly told them that they should return the scissors, pens and the other resources should they remain. As they finished with their pack of books and got ready to go home, I ask them to see if they had covered their books neatly.
Others had already packed their books in their backpacks. So, I asked to just peep in their bags and move. This was to check if they had done a good job with the covering of their books. Those who were ready to go home indulged me nonchalantly. I noticed that some of the learners had stolen the sealed covers. Mind you, whoever asked for an extra cover, I gave them in good faith. I asked no questions.
Then it later dawned on me that even the pairs of scissors and pens were missing. We had more than 30 pairs of scissors and 40 pens to help them out. When I did the count for the pens and scissors, I realised that we had only seven pairs of scissors left, and four pens.
Tears started welling up.
Even though these kids knew that we were helping them with resources they did not have, it did not stop them from stealing from us. Even though these learners are the same pupils we were helping cover their books last year, they went ahead and took for themselves.
Poverty has already eaten away their ethics. I was not mad at them at all. I am mad at poverty itself; it is somehow a crime that gives licence to commit other crimes. It violates our morals.
Just as I did not call out those kids who stole the covers, I was too heartbroken to demand the scissors and pens back.
This is the reason why we do this project, to ensure that as other pupils produce books that are covered, these learners, too, don’t have to worry about being embarrassed by uncovered books.
Nevertheless, it looks like poverty has taken a part of theirs that I don’t even know how we will recover or cover. I wish I could hurl insults at them. I wish I could call them ungrateful and thankless. But I know better.
As the late father of the nation Tata Nelson Mandela said: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is the protection of fundamental human rights, the right to dignity and a decent life.”
All I could afford them was their dignity by not calling them out. And all I pray for is that they one day have decent lives, lives that will be far from poverty, so that they never find their morals wanting.
Kabelo Chabalala is the founder and chairperson of the Young Men Movement (YMM), an organisation that focuses on the reconstruction of the socialisation of boys to create a new cohort of men. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org ; Twitter, @KabeloJay; Facebook, Kabelo Chabalala
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