Maverick Citizen

SPOTLIGHT EASTERN CAPE

When kids go hungry: One young man’s struggle for food and love in Sun City

Dr Keith Cloete, head of the Western Cape Department of Health, said in the Nids-Cram Wave 5 report, 17% of respondents reported household hunger and 14% child hunger, and that often adults would forgo food so children could eat. (Photo: Black Star / Spotlight)

Food is not the only thing needed to combat child hunger and malnutrition. Another invisible nutrient is love. In the second of a six-part series focusing on child hunger, Kathryn Cleary speaks to one teenager about his battle to break the vicious cycle of hunger and poverty in the Eastern Cape.

It is a chilly Tuesday afternoon in Sun City, an informal settlement built on top of a former dumping site in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape. Dressed in a pink robe, Momma Sheila Botha sits with big steaming pots of vegetable stew and rice in front of her – almost as if she is a queen on a throne.

Curious faces of children peer around the edge of the blue wooden door of the three-roomed shack, their eyes wide open on top of little masks, focused intently on the pots of food. 

Momma Sheila Botha sits on her ‘throne’ in her home in Sun City, Makhanda. Botha runs a pop-up soup kitchen that feeds roughly 90 children twice a week in the community. (Photo: Black Star / Spotlight)

The number of eyes increases and soon enough fingers latch on to the door frame. Seeing the eyes and fingers starting to add up, Botha bangs the metal soup ladle on the side of the stew pot and barks at the children to form a queue outside. 

“Social distance!” she yells.

Botha feeds roughly 90 children in Sun City twice a week through her pop-up soup kitchen, a community-led and supported initiative. Before the soup kitchen, the kids would dig through rubbish looking for things to eat, she says. 

Children and adults daily mine the landfill site in Makhanda for food, but also scrap and other recyclables to earn money. (Photo: Black Star / Spotlight)

The economic destruction from the Covid-19 lockdown has hit this area hard.

One of these young people is 19-year-old Butho. Having struggled with malnutrition for much of his life, he looks much younger.

One of the last of the children to be served, he sits quietly inside Botha’s home on a large comfortable chair. For Butho (not his real name), this food is his only meal for the day and could be his last for several more. He eats slowly and purposefully before returning outside to find a sunny spot on an unused donkey cart in Botha’s yard.

An aspiring TV star

He shares with Spotlight his dreams of being on television some day. But to do this, he says, he has to finish school. Butho has completed Grade 11, but with little support from his family or community, he did not continue to Grade 12. 

“I was almost close to being done with school,” he says, “but my [parents] do nothing.”

Makhanda is a small drought-stricken town in the Eastern Cape. (Photo: Black Star / Spotlight)

“When [I] fall, who will pick me up? No one. You must pick yourself up!” he laughs. “How can I focus on my future when there’s no support from my family? My own family is like fighting a war.

“If I can tell you my whole life story from A to Z, you won’t believe it,” he says. 

Born into extreme poverty and with parents who he says prefer the bottle to anything else, he questions why he is even alive. 

“I ask [my parents], why did you even bring me into this world if it’s just going to be like this.” When he was younger, he found solace and safety with his grandmother, but she passed away in 2014. He now lives with one parent and an older sister in a nearby squatter camp.

Hunger is a daily reality for Butho, but it’s become worse during the pandemic and lockdown. 

Like many young people in his community, Butho is unemployed. Before lockdown, he relied on odd jobs collecting wood or scrap metal for money to buy bread and other cheap food. 

But the lockdown has left casual jobs like these hard to come by.

“When I’m hungry, I just feel like going to sleep. Crying will do nothing,” he says.

With little for him at home, he visits Momma Botha almost every day in the hope of a meal – and, equally importantly, love. 

“She has love,” he says, holding his hands pressed against his heart. “That love that parents have. My goal is for life to be about peace and love,” he says.

“All the time I ask social workers for help… all the time, all the time. They say I must come and complain [but] no one wants to help me [and] I don’t know why,” he says.

Treatment for HIV and TB

Last year Butho was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB) and spent several months in hospital. His parents’ visits only caused him pain, he says. 

“The nurse told me, don’t cry, it will only make it worse,” he says, staring at the ground. 

“But,” he whispers, lifting his head suddenly, “they say you must suffer to succeed, ne?” A slight smile spreads across his face, growing almost imperceptibly.

He takes his TB medication every morning and evening, along with his “milkshake”, a nutritional supplement he gets from a local clinic. 

Butho has also been on ARVs for four years. “They say this thing is forever, but [if] I take the tablets I’ll never die,” he says.

When asked about solutions to child hunger, he provides a simple answer. “Love and support.”

He says the government has no idea what’s happening on the ground in his community, emphasising that children need love and support as well as food. If the government could formalise small pop-up soup kitchens like Momma Botha’s, perhaps the situation would improve, he says.

Butho exhales deeply. “Peace, love and immortality,” he says, getting up from the cart. He sets off home, back to his private “war”. DM/MC

“When Kids Go Hungry” is a six-part series looking at the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown on the nutritional status of children in South Africa. The series is supported by Media Monitoring Africa as part of the 2020 Isu Elihle Awards.

This article was produced by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest. Sign up for our newsletter.

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