Monday, 21 February 2005

Toys 'R' Us

There is a common misperception in affluent countries, that if the majority of people in another country are living on less than a dollar a day, that things in that country must therefore be cheap. But that is not necessarily the case.

It certainly does not hold true in this country when purchasing toys and books, practically all of which have to be imported, due to lack of indigenous industry and a stagnant economy. They are as expensive as in Europe.

It strikes me that people ‘back home’ who donated money to the creche here were expecting miracles. The total sum of money raised in our appeal was probably equivalent to the sum of money spent on one child’s birthday presents back in the UK. And we have 50 kids here who need textbooks, toys and learning materials.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful – the money has been well spent. But sometimes I despair of people’s ignorance, and their unwillingness to move beyond it and open their eyes.

We take Camilla the creche teacher with us to Lusaka. She has never been to the capital before. Her excitement at the thought of being able to purchase supplies is infectious.

We start off in a bookstore and rapidly fill a basket full of activity books and colouring mats. The books are nice, but stocks are very limited, and we cannot get a class set of anything. The kids will have to share.

The next store has tumbleweed blowing about in it. The staff do not know what a jigsaw is. We do, however, pick up some coloured wallcharts.

We head for one of the open markets. Camilla has asked if we can get some blankets for the babies for their naptime, as at the moment they have only a mattress. The blankets she is thinking of are ubiquitous. They are also hard, scratchy, dull-coloured. I spy some gorgeous primary coloured fluffy duvets. Camilla is shocked at the price. Screw it, I think and give them to her to take to the till.

Our final destination is a large toy store. We fill the trolley high with games, puzzles, balls, bricks, anything we can find, and soon the money is spent.

The next day at the creche is mayhem. Despite the fact that most of the kids have never even seen toys, they waste no time launching into the booty. Smiles are wide. The biggest hits are some plastic spectacles and wind-up chickens. In true child-style, one little girl wants everything and refuses to share. She howls.

Usually when I go to the creche the kids start bawling, unused to seeing a muzungu face. But today they are happy. I guess bribery works everywhere he he. One little boy becomes besotted with me. He follows me around with his wind-up chicken, babbling away very earnestly in his language. I have no idea what he’s saying to me, but it’s all very urgent and important. I correctly guess he is the son of one of the guys in the office, as he is a total mini-me. I take lots of photos. Later I print off a photo of mini-me and give it to his dad. His grin is wider than his son’s on seeing the toys.

“Is this photo from today, this morning?”

“Yes, Simon is loving the new toys.”

The dad stares at the photo again. “But how did you get into town so quickly?”

I laugh, and explain about photo paper and colour printers.

He is amazed. He will treasure the photo, because of course most people here don’t have photos of anything, least of all their kids.