Here is a letter I wrote to my son’s Head Teacher.
For your reference, my eldest son is 4.
3 December 2015
I hope this letter finds you well. I sense that you are a stickler for tradition and politeness, a good thing, and so this request comes by letter rather than just a swiftly written message.
I know that the world’s eyes are focused on Syria right now: I was no doubt one of the many up watching the debate last night and see both sides of the arguments. Many have referred to Hilary Benn’s short speech but I was moved by Margaret Beckett’s comment that if the Paris terror attacks had happened here and we had turned to France for military support, what then? I had hoped to bring my children up without a war that affected them so closely but sadly, whilst the increasing nature of today’s global proximity is in one sense a good thing, it also opens us up to dangers that we were once annexed from geographically and it does concern me greatly.
However, I digress. I was invited to a talk at Chatham House, a think tank in St James’ Square, last week on Poverty in Africa and how it affected their youth. Speakers there included Dr Wayne Shand who works for a charity called StreetInvest; Lili Harris, Girls Research Manager: Real Choices, Real Lives Cohort Study from Plan UK; Alan Kiwanuka, Strategic Programmes Manager from Girls’ Education Challenge, ChildHope Uk and Gita Honwana Welch, Associate Fellow, Africa Programme, Chatham House.
All of these charities were very worthwhile. Street Invest worked with street children in Africa and used them as researches, the children, to approach other children on the street and try to build up relationships of trust. Whilst one of the people I spoke to who was involved in the project (Patrick Shanahan, Research Director at StreetInvest) moved me very much by his dedication and continuing desire to impel change, irrespective of the government in question’s lack of interest in implementing their programmes, the one that really stuck a chord with me was Lil’s talk. I can’t find my notes on it (they must be at home), but I can tell you a little bit about it.
Plan UK are involved in a study, now in its 9th year, in following 142 girls living in 9 different countries around the world – Benin, Brazil, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, the Philippines, Togo, Uganda and Vietnam. Born in 2006, the girls involved in the study turn 9 this year and will continue until they are 18. For the purposes of this talk, Lili focused on the studies in Africa.
Briefly, the study looks at the way in which those girls are affected by society and expectations within their culture. They list the girls into three different categories and hope to change that over time:
It goes without saying that the last group is the smallest and this is something they hope to change. Whilst they may begin to ask questions, society may impose other cultural norms on them and it may in some cases be fruitless; additionally, household chores can tend to take precedence over schooling in some cases and irrespective of a desire to learn, obligation takes over and childhood is lost. One must not forget working with boys is also an important factor in this arena and this is something that I brought up with Lili and something that she wished had been incorporated into the study from the start (but it is now too late); for without changing their attitudes and exposing them to an alternative, society will never change.
I have signed up to the sponsor a child program on the Plan UK web site which involves a very small monthly donation and I can build up a relationship, however small, with the child concerned; which I thought would be good for Oscar to increase his awareness of his very much privileged position.
Since that talk there is one thing that Lili said that I cannot etch from my memory and which made me determined to do something about on the night, however small. She mentioned a little girl, aged 9 (as they all now are), and her desire to go to school and to have a little bike to go to school on. For some reason the colour red is stuck in my mind; it has connotations of hope and despair simultaneously and of a call for help: I think of its prominence in Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 ‘Le Ballon Rouge’ (Mr Oates showed it to the children at Melrose House); the ‘Red Shoes’ film made in 1948; Dorothy’s shoes in The Wizard of Oz and of course, who could forget the sad poignancy of the little girl in the red coat in Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’?
I don’t want to get that little girl a bike for it wouldn’t be fair on all the others in her village and would probably just create problems; but I do want to give her hope. I know it’s only one little girl and the world is full of people who need help but the life of one little girl has the capability to change the lives of many at one point and that is important; (even if it doesn’t, putting a smile on her face alone is still worth the effort).
I thought I could give her hope by sending many, many drawings of bicycles drawn by young children, from reception right up to age 8 when they finish school with you: I’m thinking bikes with feet and bikes with wings; bikes that swim with the fish under the water and bikes that carry tens of people. Anything: the imagination of children is a wonderful thing. If those pictures make it to that little girl’s abode in that small, far off African village, (wherever that be and however small), that little girls room that she probably shares with others can be decorated with pictures of bikes from the floor to the ceiling and that is one example where the increasing globalization in today’s world and inter connectedness to other countries and other cultures can do some good in society, instead of bad.
Please could you help me? There is no rush to do this: it doesn’t have to be done before Christmas. I just want to do it and too often people have ideas to do things that would be a great benefit to humanity and don’t always get around to doing it; or people call them dreamers and say there are better ways of helping others. It is true that I am a dreamer and in some cases naieve; it is also true that there are other ways of helping and with that in mind, I signed up to become a sponsor to a child, boy or girl, in any country, of any age.
However, the idea of young children here doing something nice for one little girl over there, something that she may just remember for the rest of her life, cannot escape me. Please could you help me? All I need are the teachers to encourage the children to draw the pictures: it could even become a lesson. We could make a frieze of all of them (I can take them somewhere to get colour copied to save your printing ink) and put them in the ballroom; the originals being sent abroad through Plan UK’s contacts. Perhaps Lili could come into school next year and give a talk; I am sure she would be happy to. All of this, and I know you care about this, increases their awareness of the world outside their own, the world in which they are so protected and so privileged. We need to teach them to reach out and to use their hearts and I know you are concerned with that: I knew it the moment I stepped into your school for a tour and saw the frieze downstairs in the music room of Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ and how you had encouraged the children to describe it: it was a piece of music that gave me great comfort growing up as a young girl in times of turbulence and it held me in its arms and provided a safe haven, albeit for a few moments.
Again I digress and I apologise; it is because this means so much to me.
There is an excellent publication I picked up from the talk that has been produced by Plan International entitled ‘Because I am a Girl’. I have a copy but will also see if I can order another for you. I can probably lend you mine in fact, if you don’t mind my scrawlings thereon. When my boys provide lists of the things that they want for Christmas, I can’t help but think these are just things and what is really important is to teach them the meanings of things like peace, forgiveness, understanding, compassion, humanity, democracy and justice: something that they have in abundance by virtue of their birth.
This is what would make me happy: walking in to the offices of Plan UK with a large envelope FULL of pictures of bicycles to send that one girl; for although she is only one, her country of birth and the privileges that she is consequently denied do not, and should not, mean that her life is any less valuable than the lives of my own children and to me, a smile brought into the eyes of that one child is all that I need to make me write this letter to you and to want to illicit change.
Please let me know what you think.
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