I had to bow my head during my interview with 71-year-old Ouma (Grandma) Maria Snyders so that her grandchildren could not see the tears in my eyes. I understand enough Afrikaans to know that she was telling me that she has cancer in both of her breasts and in one ovary and that she needs to have a double mastectomy and the ovarian cancer removed. What her daughter-in-law had to translate, that I didn’t catch, was that Maria isn’t going for the operation because there is no one to look after the children.
Ouma Maria Snyders surrounded by a few of her grandchildren.
Ouma Maria takes care of 25 kids on her meager pension. These are her grandchildren who’ve been abandoned by Maria’s own nine children, some of whom have died, and others who are addicts sitting around in shebeens (bars) and drowning out their sorrows either with alcohol or drugs. It is not possible for me to ask the many questions that I want to ask because my translator into Oshiwambo is young and on her first assignment with me and has not been taught about privacy and a show of respect, and everything needs to be translated a second time into Afrikaans by Maria’s daughter-in-law. Plus I am being swarmed by all of the little children touching my camera and photo bombing just like kids everywhere in the world, and I don’t want them to understand what we are discussing unless it is general. In the first place, I’m really not visiting Maria for Maria’s story. I’m here to learn about her grandson, Rolandino, so that we can find someone to sponsor him for school. But, it is Maria I am most interested in. She radiates the depth of a good soul and I’m sure she has had many fascinating experiences in her life.
Ouma Maria Snyders with her grandson, Rolandino.
What I do learn is that Maria is coloured with Damara in her background. She was born in the Old Location in Windhoek and she and her husband moved to the resettlement area, known as Katutura, without a lot of trouble. Coloured and all Namibian tribes were forcefully moved from the Old Location to Katutura at the end of the 1950s, where they were segregated by tribe. Maria worked as a housekeeper for many years. She said she had a good life.
Ouma Maria Snyders
Despite her beautiful smile, I detect worry in Maria’s eyes. All the little children surrounding her are clearly cared about and nourished to the best of Maria’s ability. But, what will happen to them when she goes for surgery?
Maria’s pension is N$700 a month which is equivalent to $[convert number=700 from=”nad” to=”usd”] USD, and €[convert number=700 from=”nad” to=”eur”] per month.
Food prices are high in Namibia and trying to feed and clothe all of these children on so little money is impossible. To give you an example, my monthly utility bill in Windhoek, the same city as Maria, is twice Maria’s income.
Maria must also pay for water, approximately N$113; $[convert number=113 from=”nad” to=”usd”] USD; €[convert number=113 from=”nad” to=”eur”] per month. (Rolandino goes to collect from the public taps not too far from their okambashu.)
She must pay a lease amount of about N$70 ($[convert number=70 from=”nad” to=”usd”] USD; €[convert number=70 from=”nad” to=”eur”]) for the land where her okambashu sits.
She has to pay school fees and buy uniforms for all of the children going to school (it amounts to approximately N$150; $[convert number=150 from=”nad” to=”usd”] USD; €[convert number=150 from=”nad” to=”eur”] per month per child in secondary school) plus she must buy clothes and warm blankets for the cold winter months we are experiencing right now.
I know that three of her grandchildren are sponsored for school by Family of Hope Services but there are so many others that I don’t how Maria manages. She does have some financial support from one tall young man, her grandson, Mario. Mario is 14-years-old and a school drop-out because he needs to work. He has a job, cleaning, every Tuesday in Pioneer’s Park, a suburb of the capital city of Windhoek. Mario’s financial contribution to the household provides a small supplement to Maria’s meager pension.
Maria also has some support from her sister-in-law who lives out of town. Her sister-in-law, who is in her 50’s, comes to Windhoek to help out with the children from Monday to Friday. She brings a bit of firewood so that Maria can cook for the kids. On the weekends, however, she must return to her husband who works on a farm 100km from Windhoek. Maria’s sister-in-law can only help with the children during the week. Considering Maria’s options with her health, this is not enough to remove the burden of worry she feels. If Maria goes for surgery the doctors have told her that she’ll need at least two months to recover and, at her age, there is no guarantee of survival. So Maria continues to postpone going to the hospital. If Maria doesn’t survive her cancer or the surgery to remove her cancer, the burden of care for the children will fall to the oldest grandchild who is a young woman of 18. Without Maria to collect her pension, how would such a young girl feed and care for all of the kids?
Ouma Maria showing where she cooks the meals for her grandchildren.
Inside Ouma Maria’s okambashu.
There is only one bedroom in the okambashu. Three children sleep with Ouma Maria in her bed, the others share the second bed and the floor. The older children sleep in the other okambashu and Rolandino sleeps at his father’s house but spends the days with Ouma Maria.
Whatever the reasons why Ouma Maria’s own children have gone astray, the little grandchildren are victims of the situation and it is only through organizations like Family of Hope Services that they are introduced to a world where they learn to care for themselves, where they get an education, and where they can see prospects for their futures. Family of Hope Services employs many programs to build self-esteem and confidence in children, including providing counseling via partners for more than 60% of the children they support. Without outside help, Maria’s grandchildren will most likely follow in the footsteps of their parents.