No child can thrive on an empty stomach

Compiled & written by: Nokuzola Songo, Former NAG team member and current Impande supporter.

May was the month that marked Mother’s Day in most parts of the world. However, what is less acknowledged globally, is that Africa Day and World Hunger Day fell in the same month. 

In this reflection I will explore the intersection of these three significant events through the words of women who straddle all three worlds – African mothers who find themselves anxious about food security. It is worth emphasising that the testimonies that follow are not isolated incidents that can be blamed on individuals. Rather, they are indicative of troubling trends in deprived parts of the globe.

These testimonies do not serve to perpetuate stereotypes about Africa and widely generalized tropes of hunger, rather, they aim to paint a picture of systemic flaws in politics involving economic exclusion, land dispossession, gender inequality, the legacy of race relations and, more contemporary, class in South Africa. As an Impande team member, all roads lead to Early Childhood Development (ECD), and that is the lens I will use to unpack aspects of the food insecurity problem in South Africa. A few months ago, I was carrying out a routine interview on the observed benefits of taking children to day-care (Early Childhood Development) and the devastating and disproportionate effects of Covid-19 on cognitive stimulation of children in marginalised communities.

The parents we talked to were all women, through no design of our own, they were mothers and grandmothers who resembled many women I had interviewed before and many more I will never get an opportunity to meet. There was a hopefulness in their voices, and hints of the dreams they wanted to pass on to their children and grandchildren, as promised with the new South Africa in 1994. They spent most of their lives performing unpaid labour (taking care of children, the elderly, maintaining households, etc.), due in part to unrelentingly low employment opportunities and oppressive, patriarchal legacies. Most of them rely on government monthly child support grants of R445 per month per child and/or government old age pensions of R1890 per month. These support grants are used to sustain entire families including children and grandchildren. Some women rely on additional income from, often underpaid, family members who work in towns or cities in pursuit of a “better” life.

The first woman answered my question about the benefits of ECD: “If the children go to ECD that means I can go look for work,” – at which point the others nodded in unison. The next woman answered: “[…] when they go to ECD, they come back knowing new words in English and they seem confident”. The group chuckled at what seemed to be another point that connected them – eager children whose minds seem to be expanding on a daily basis, children who can’t help but show a glimpse of their potential, a hope for a more equal South Africa, one ECD at a time.

The women in the group also cited concerns about child safety, another significant theme to consider and one that deserves an entire reflection of its own. However, the question of Covid-19 brought to light challenges that pre-existed the virus, and their reflections of the lockdown included the stagnation or decline of the children’s cognitive achievement. Food insecurity was a major recurring theme; it had also emerged in interviews I conducted over 6 years ago.

Testimonies such as “before I sent my child to ECD, I would run out of food before the end of the month because I cannot afford to feed my children 3 balanced meals a day” or “my child going to ECD means that I no longer have to have sleepless nights worried about how much bread we have left and how long it will last” were all too common. This anxiety about food security connects to the span of time I spent traveling KZN looking for unregistered ECD sites. Many unfunded ECD practitioners have shared struggles of bringing food from their own limited supply to feed children sent to day-care without food. At times I would talk to women who chose to permanently close their ECD’s because they could no longer bear to be confronted daily by the faces of hungry children, nor could they afford to bring any more food from their own homes. Such ECD closures can cause a devastating ripple effect for child development in those communities, further widening the social and economic divide; therefore, we cannot stress the issue of food security enough. Government ECD funding is essential to the health and wellbeing of many children and has deeper effects than we could possibly survey or imagine.

While Covid-19 has devastated economies globally, economic struggles and food insecurity have been a lingering theme for decades in the country. One cannot shy away from the indignity people are subjected to when simply feeding your family becomes a source of severe anxiety. This is inhumane and no parent or child should be put in that position.

If one were to seriously consider the physical sensation of hunger and the damaging effects of facing daily malnourishment, one might begin to understand the level of soul crushing mental strain it has; not just on individuals, but on the community’s ability to develop. According to an Oxfam report from 2014: 1 in four South Africans have suffered hunger, and more were in danger of food insecurity. The recent global health crisis of Covid-19 has escalated the crisis, but is not the sole cause.

Hunger in South Africa is due partly to the complex matter of land dispossession, climate change and economic exclusion. Climate change applies serious impediments to food production, while the legacy of economic disparity perpetuates the situation. These are matters that are further complicated by the ever-skyrocketing prices of basic commodities, electricity, and transport, frequently forcing families to choose between essentials such as electricity and food. Food insecurity in South Africa is irrefutable, yet somehow it is masked by poor nutrition-caused obesity. What I am left with is the “manje?” where to from here? Without meaningful policy shifts and a commitment to combatting hunger by the government and the private sector, eradicating hunger in South Africa is a tall order. However, we can and need to make sure that this problem is no longer invisible by giving it a voice and a platform. To take matters full circle, let’s go back to ECD. It is what Impande knows and does best; fighting for equitable access to quality ECD education, and for government support to make sure that every ECD centre is subsidized, allowing them to make sure no child suffers the devastation of hunger. No child can fully develop or thrive on an empty stomach and we have made it part of our core mission to advocate and intervene. It has certainly proven to be an uphill climb, but it is one we have no intention of deserting.


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