After finishing his morning chores, 9-year-old James rushes out the door for school. In the afternoons he and his friends play soccer, then he heads home. James’ home is in Kenya’s Kibera, the largest slum in Africa where at least 500,000 people crowd into miles of sheet-metal and cardboard homes. It’s also one of the most dangerous places in the world. Violence, house fires and open sewage make it hard for many children like James to survive, much less thrive.
In the evenings James is alone with his two younger siblings while his mother sells mangoes at a small roadside market near their home. She brings home less than a dollar a day. As James puts his siblings to bed, he tries not to disturb his father, who often comes home from the bar smelling like busaa, the local alcohol. Then by the light of the family’s only kerosene lamp, James rushes through his studies, trying to preserve as much fuel as possible since it’s hard for his mom to pay for more.
Even though James’ circumstances are difficult, he is part of a changing Africa that is improving on many fronts, including health care and economic activity. James will likely have more opportunities than children before him to rise out of poverty, according to Sidney Muisyo, a Kenyan who is Vice President of the Africa Region at Compassion International. To see opportunities for James and other children like him, however, requires a different perspective of the continent.
“Africa is not frozen in time or in perpetual poverty and calamity. We must do all we can to have a more balanced view of things in Africa,” Muisyo says. “Otherwise we will be in danger of being naively optimistic about the continent or cynically feel despair for the continent — neither of which perspective is rooted in reality.”
While too many African children under 5 are sick from preventable illnesses, more children than ever are thriving — children like Dede, born to 13-year-old Charlotte Okyere in Ghana. Mother and baby are in Compassion’s Child Survival Program and receive medical support to ensure that they both stay healthy.
For example, far too many African children die needlessly from preventable causes. But the child mortality rate in 16 African countries is decreasing at record rates. The top rates of decline are faster than anywhere else seen in the world for at least the last 30 years, thanks to better health care and cleaner environments.
Africa is also undergoing positive economic changes. The World Bank’s 2013 annual report indicates that economic output in sub-Saharan Africa increased by an estimated 4.7 percent. Poverty has declined, with the share of people living on less than $1.25 a day falling from 58 percent in 1996 to about 48 percent in 2010. In addition, the World Bank reports that higher commodities, increasing investment and a pickup in world economy will help economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa significantly outpace the global average over the next three years. And investment, which first outpaced aid in 2006, now doubles aid.
Compassion is working to make sure children and families don’t miss out on these positive economic changes. Compassion’s church-based approach, says Muisyo, uniquely positions the ministry to help families deal with challenges and realize opportunities.
Compassion helps keep children healthy and educates and equips them and often their families for job opportunities. Compassion also partners with pastors who are from the communities they serve and who understand how to help each member of their community — a key approach that ensures success.
“To address poverty,” says Muisyo, “one must understand the context; otherwise one is likely to have not only the wrong diagnosis but also the wrong remedy.” This approach, says Muisyo, is about being with a child throughout his or her development to make sure that child has opportunities to succeed.
“Development — especially child development — is not an activity you do this week and next week it’s done. It is a journey,” says Muisyo, “a partnership journey in fact, in which the poor are co-partners and co-travelers. Development is not something that is done to the poor, but rather the transformational journey one takes with the poor.”
James’ pastor cannot relocate him out of his slum, but he can offer him an oasis of hope and opportunity at a Compassion child development center. There, James will connect with his caring pastor, tutors and a sponsor who writes to him and prays for him often. This encouragement, in addition to a healthier environment and more economic opportunities, will work together to give James and other children like him a path out of poverty