A trip to Wismar with Food for the Poor by Edlyn Benfield
Stabroek News
May 5, 2002

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An emaciated young child with soulful eyes stands quietly while the strangers point their cameras and smile encouragingly at him. Shaka (not his real name) lives with his two older sisters, a 21-year-old aunt and her son, aged three, at Blueberry Hill, Wismar in the mining town of Linden.

Shaka is six, although he looks more like a two-year-old. When he was a baby, his mother died of an AIDS-related illness. And last year, his father followed her to the grave, having suffered the same condition. Earlier this year, Shaka, too, tested positive for HIV. His condition is complicated by malnourishment.

Shaka's two sisters, seated on a log in front of the flat two-roomed concrete house, were stripping green coconut branches with small knives in a slow, steady motion. They too were silent. The pointers from the branches would be collected together in bundles to be tied and sold as brooms.

Food for the Poor (FFP) worker, Michelle Branker, who took Stabroek News to meet the family, explained that the brooms were their main means of support as Shaka's aunt Nadia (not her real name) was a single parent. Her son's father had never assumed responsibility for his child and since Nadia was unskilled, she was unable to get employment.

An official of the Linden Care Foundation (LCF), a non-governmental organisation which had formerly been linked to the Regional AIDS Committee, told this newspaper that Shaka's father had earned a living doing odd jobs "here and there." The official also said that Shaka had been born with HIV and was currently being treated at a local doctor's clinic.

Vanessa Singh, another FFP Public Relations staffer, explained that even for those with education, jobs were limited in Linden following the decline of the bauxite industry. More than half of the persons in the town were either unemployed or underemployed. "Some of them try to smile it off but it's obvious that the struggle is a big one," volunteered another member of the visiting team.

Shortly afterwards, Nadia ventured to the door of the house, and looking in the direction of Shaka explained with a wan smile, "He [Shaka] is always like that. He don't smile much, just nod and he does hardly talk too, except when he got his moods."

She said that Shaka attended school irregularly because of his constant illness, and sometimes because of lack of food.

Branker revealed that the family had not eaten for several days and always looked forward to the assistance provided by members of the FFP Linden sub-committee. The FFP representative said that the family would now be added to their `special project' list, which meant that they would receive food, clothing and other essentials on a monthly basis. There are currently seven families on the West Bank of Demerara and one in Kingston, Georgetown, she said, who also benefited under this scheme.

A short distance away in another section of Blueberry Hill, Sherry (not her real name), a nine-year-old schoolgirl lives in a broken-down wooden hut with roofing made mostly of plastic. Sherry lives there with her grandmother, 64, who depends on occasional donations from helpful neighbours or the meagre contributions of her children.

When Sherry was four, her 20-year-old mother died of AIDS, and a few months later her 11-month-old baby died too. Some months after that, Sherry's father, who was in the Guyana Defence Force, also succumbed to the disease. Grandma Clarice has been taking care of Sherry ever since the loss of her parents.

"She [Sherry's mom] was meh 8[th] child. Ah had nine children in all," Grandma Clarice tells the visitors. Contributions from the FFP Linden sub-committee also help this family to survive.

"As you can see, poverty is very prevalent in these parts," Singh remarked. Although there were cases of poverty on the East Coast and in West Demerara, she said, the mining town was more severely affected.

A community representative commented that the lethal combination of illicit drugs and AIDS was seriously affecting the Linden community.

At the next stop the visitors approached another wooden shack where after calling, 34-year-old Sarah appeared at the door cuddling two-year-old Alicia.

The visitors' eyes were immediately drawn to the child's badly scarred left hand and foot.

Sarah explained that Alicia was the last of her four children, the eldest being 17 years old, and that their father, Timothy, 54, was bedridden with a stroke. Before becoming ill late last year, Timothy had operated one of the wooden boats used to transport passengers up and down the river.

Alicia had been burnt one night, when she was in the care of her two older siblings and a young uncle. Sarah had gone to the hospital to seek treatment for one of her other children, and had left Alicia asleep on a mattress on the floor. The child had apparently woken up some time during the night and had pulled down the flambeau lamp which was lit, because their home was without electricity. She said that by the time the neighbour arrived it was too late. In addition, they had had to travel several miles to get medical attention for her daughter.

Sarah's family is another of the beneficiaries of the special assistance being provided by the FFP. The young mother also gets help from her older sister for her husband's medical care. The sister lives in Georgetown and is the owner of a small business.

Singh told this newspaper that people suffered from `extreme depression' in several sections of Linden. She explained that the FFP committees highlighted those cases in their respective communities which required urgent attention and the FFP public relations officials and internal auditors would then carry out field assessments and compile reports on their findings. These reports were then prioritised and arrangements made to give aid to the affected families.