Diaspora and Underwear – Where do Our Priorities Lie?

Underwear for Africa
A campaign by Mothers Fighting for Others to collect underwear for children in Kenya.

For the longest time, aid has been sent to Africa from the Western world but little has changed. One of the causes of this is usually the fact that most of the NGOs come up with “solutions” to “problems” no one ever had. Below is a Kenyan law student from the University of Birmingham discovering that the only way to truly help, is by engaging the one to receive help and understanding what their problems are.

Dear member of the Diaspora,

What is your take on the wearing of underwear? No, really, it’s a serious question. What is your take on the wearing of underwear?

The reason I am writing this letter to you is because a few days ago I found myself in the middle of a heated debate with my mother and a couple of her friends. The topic of discussion had meandered off the issue of children going barefoot to school, and had now reached its next destination of children not having underwear. Until that day, the thought that underwear was important had never really crossed my mind. Growing up in the village, at the tender ages of 2, I remember jumping and running around without a care in the world. The last thing on my mind was whether I had chosen to put on underwear that day or not.

I am sorry, forgive my bluntness, but in order for me to drive this point home, there needs to be some sort of anecdote or real life experience that we can relate to. My mother argued profusely that it wasn’t fair that these children had to walk barefoot to school, why can’t their parents buy them shoes? She had seemed so shocked that in this day and age, children were still walking barefoot to school. Her friend chuckled at her shock, he seemed to remember the fact that when he was young, he had friends who walked for miles without shoes. It was better for his friends to get an education, than make the excuse to their parents that they could not attend school due to the fact that they did not have any shoes. This excuse would obviously garner them a beating. Better to avoid that hey?

How does this tie into the issue of underwear? Well, my mum’s friend then brings up the point that some boys AND girls are also going to school without underwear. To this, my Mum’s face dropped. She was gobsmacked. How could children be attending school without underwear? Especially the girl child whom society knew was always in danger of pregnancy the moment she hit puberty. This then turned into another dispute about the girl child, her place in society, and the consequences of pregnancy. How, in Turkana and Laikipia, young girls have to squat in the sand once a month, rather than go to school because they do not own sanitary towels, or even underwear. Their absence in school does not come as a surprise and teachers are well aware that at different points in the month, some girls shall be missing for days and return unexpectedly . No follow up work is given, and their is no sympathy for them. The attitude has become ‘You’re missing lessons because you’re on your period? Sort yourself out!’

Then an interesting thought occurred to me. Here we were, thousands and thousands of miles away in Tunisia arguing about shoes and underwear and how these play an important role, when back in Kenya those same children are going about their daily chores and routines without a care in the world. To them it’s become something of the norm. Who needs shoes anyway? Better just try my luck on the road to school and hope that I do not get jiggers.

Are we, or at least let me speak for my mother, her friends and I, arguing about the wrong thing? Are we merely talking about superficial issues that are not very important to that child? If we were to walk up to a child who has walked barefoot all his life and ask him ‘what is the most important thing that you want right now?’ What do you think the answer will be? A new pair of shoes, a game, underwear? Or would it be an education, never ending supply of food, a good house for his or her family to sleep in?

Where do our priorities lie as the youth in the diaspora when we talk about helping these people? Are we considering what WE think is important, or are we trying to put ourselves in their shoes? Are we endeavouring to empathise with the children with no shoes and underwear?

I am constantly grappling with how I can make a difference. Especially when it comes to the issue of aid, how sustainable will it be? How much will it encourage the receivers to alleviate themselves from a position of poverty? Is it really the best solution? Will underwear make such an incredible difference in a child’s life?

I hope this letter hasn’t been too over the top or too open. I just wanted to know whether we were both going through the same battle in our minds.

Yours sincerely,

Olivia Adhiambo Wameyo

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Olivia Wameyo is a first year student at The University of Birmingham studying Law with French. She is passionate about Children’s rights, and hoping, through the judicial system, to find sustainable and innovative ideas that will aid the African Child.

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