A half-smiling black toddler, dressed in rags, gazing poignantly into a camera, is everyone’s favourite African cliché.
This image is tweeted endlessly by gap-year trust fund kids to show how compassionate they are as they travel round the “real” Africa, on an extended holiday that would fund at least 100 girls in Malawi to complete their secondary education.
It is promoted by charities, competing for our “pennies to feed the black babies”. Those of us of a certain age will remember being cajoled into sharing our meagre pocket money with hungry children thousands of miles away. Today’s crude call-to-action is no different to what it was at Sunday school in the 1960s, even if it is made on social media instead of at church.
Those ubiquitous, half-smiling black children, apparently desperate for our benevolence, are now plastered on the side of a bus that has been touring British cities this week to drum up support for Compassion UK, a child-sponsorship charity.
Reading about the charity’s clumsy attempt to portray the “sights, sounds and smells of a developing country”, while sitting in one of the world’s poorest countries, made me smile, before reaching for my weary indignation.
Most people’s view of sub-Saharan Africa, the continent where human life began, is at best simplistic, and almost always formed by the clichés perpetuated by the fundraising campaigns of international NGOs and rich governments desperate to keep voters on side for their aid expenditure.
African life, as seen through a marketing campaign, is little more than boy soldiers, corrupt politicians and those half-smiling, poorly dressed toddlers. Yet the reality is far more complex and vibrant.
As Vitumbiko, a young mother and auditor for an international accountancy firm, told me recently, “Our lives are basically the same,” she said over a cup of Mzuzu coffee. “We all want good lives. The only difference between Malawi and rich countries are the privileges your economy gives you.”
Emma Wood, an Edinburgh academic, is determined to help change how people perceive African life. Sitting on the floor of the Steka care home for street children in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial city, she explained her approach.
“When young Scots come to Malawi, as many do now, I want them to take the time to listen and engage in genuine dialogue with their Malawi peers, instead of just volunteering their time on activities like painting classroom blocks.”
Emma, who helped develop Queen Margaret University’s unique model of teenage dialogue, used successfully in Scotland on public health campaigns, believes that if Malawians and Scots teenagers can share the reality of their lives, they can change the world.
“Scots kids are often worried they will say the wrong thing, so conversations are superficial,” she explained, “We believe our structured sessions here at Steka, focused on the lives of young Malawians, will help forge real solidarity and understanding.”
Emma’s idea has won support from the Scottish Government who are funding a feasibility study for this new approach to volunteering abroad.
“Volunteering trips often accentuate poverty and misery in a way that doesn’t reflect the resilience and ambitions of Malawians,” explained Emma, “and they can reinforce stereotypes of helping and helpless.”
There is nothing helpless about Steka’s founder, Godknows Maseko, whose life story reads like a movie script.
Like the 73 children he and his wife Helen currently care for, he spent much of his childhood living on the streets of Blantyre, before returning home to his mother and working his way through secondary school.
He emigrated to South Africa, hoping to build a better life, only to find his new employers were drug traffickers. “They took me to Argentina with an aim of killing me to transport the cocaine in my body and use my private parts as bait for catching sharks,” he explained to the Nation newspaper recently, “but eventually I escaped and managed to come back to Malawi with nothing but my clothes.”
In 2007, he and his wife set up the Steka care home. “Steka stands for step kids aware,” insists Godknows, “not street kids aware. The children are our family, we are their step-parents. “People think that children begging on the street are looking for food, for a bed. They are looking for love. For the love of a parent.”
Poverty drives many children from their rural villages to the city streets. Girls flee sexual abuse at home, only to be forced into prostitution to eat. But no-one in authority seems to care enough to get an accurate picture of how many children live on the streets of Malawi.
A recent report by Malawi’s Ombudsman, Martha Chizuma, criticised the Government of Malawi for abandoning the street children.
“No matter how we ignore the street children, they are still Malawians and it is a matter of national issue, these children have the same human rights like others,” she told a press conference in March.
Godknows is philosophical about his government’s lack of care. “That’s the way it is,” he shrugs, but that has not stopped him from lobbying every senior politician who stood for President in the recent election.
“I have written to them all, including President Mutharika,” he says. “I want to meet them to tell them about our children, Malawi’s children, and how we should come together to care for them all.”
His main focus, however, is on raising funds to build a vocational centre where his children can learn skills for life.
“All my children go to school, and some will go on to university, but not all of them. That is why I am building the new centre,” he explains.
“Where will the money come from?” I ask. He smiles. “That is a tricky question. But God always provides, and we work hard 24 hours a day to raise the money.”
“We raise chickens, run a nursery class for working parents, make school uniforms, and we have people who support us. People like Emma.” Godknows is happy to work alongside volunteers and experts from rich countries, like Scotland, but he does not need white people to save him, or his family of 73 and growing.
Yes, his children were victims, ignored by a society too careless to notice their pain, but so too were the abused girls of Rochdale.
Godknows is the face of the real Africa. And it is much more hopeful than the cliché beloved of marketing campaigns.
Find out more about Godknows’ plans to build a skills centre at www.stekaskills.com.