It Takes a Village

Last month marked 28 years since my mother died. I was 17, she 43. I am now older than she was when she died, a befuddling thought for some reason.

My childhood had seen its fair share of turbulence and my mother had always been my safe harbor. Needless to say, when she died, the bottom fell out of my world. For about ten years after, the anniversary of her death was unbearable to me. I would spend months dreading it and waiting for it to pass. Then time did that thing it does, and for many years now my ritual has been to spend the day of her death in some sort of mindful reflection. She was that sort of mother, encouraging of reflection, so it’s fitting.

On the anniversary of her death this last December, this is what I thought about.

I thought about the day she died and the months (years) after. I thought about how scared I was, how desperately sad and angry, and how meaningless and unfair life had seemed to me. Some days I felt destructive. Some days I felt hopeless. Many days I didn’t feel at all.

And then in my mind’s eye I saw the army of people – my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, extended family and friends – who miraculously appeared around me, then and ever after, with their outstretched arms, their love, their understanding, their unfailing support. As I flailed and raged and retreated and emerged, went up and down and all around and did all the things that hurting young people do, they stood there, unflinching, that army of my supporters.

I thought about what would have happened to me – with all that rage and pain trapped in that me who was yet to become a full person – if I had been left to figure it all out on my own. If all those people had not stood up and held me when my world fell apart.

In my late 20s I worked in the criminal justice system in California writing the social histories of people accused of committing crimes. I had to hear about and write about the lives of desperate people who did desperate things. In and out of the prisons I would go meeting people who had difficult life experiences that oftentimes led to the recklessness that brought them finally to prison. There was much I learnt about life and myself. Most significantly I learnt how easy it is for a person’s life to get completely derailed. And what a profound difference it makes to one’s experience of life and its vicissitudes (and one’s ability to cope, to endure, to overcome), if at an early enough age one has had the assurance of safety, and of having grown up people – the people in charge – stop in their tracks to listen, to care and to protect. And so every time I walked out of a prison and heard the door clanging shut behind me I would silently mutter a prayer of thanks to the universe for giving me the people it did when I was young and falling to pieces. ‘There,’ I would say to myself, ‘but for the grace of my people, might have been I.’

That’s what every kid needs, no? The security that comes from knowing that there are adults in the world who will go to bat for them? Sometimes parents can’t be there, or can’t be that. Horrible life stuff happens to them and willy-nilly they hurt or abandon or neglect or otherwise fail their children. That’s when some other adult has got to step up to the plate.

But in this day and age as families and communities break up, and people have to migrate and relocate and run helter-skelter in search of livelihood, sustenance, opportunities, leaving behind extended family and support systems, who can those adults be?

To answer that, came this goose-bump giving experience:

This last month at Aangan we witnessed the gathering of close to 400 adult women (and some men) who volunteer in our PACT (Parents and Children Against Trafficking and Harm) program as community child protection workers in six cities where we work. They came to talk about how hard children’s lives can be these days, how hard it is for families to manage in isolation, and how vital and necessary their role is as community protection workers – as supporters and champions of children. They talked about how they have linked needy families to government grants and schemes, how they have enrolled children into foster-care programs, how they have supported children to prevent child marriages, to return to school, to get their mid-day meals, to get out of hazardous work, to be seen and to be heard. These are adults who have difficult enough lives of their own, but who know, deep inside them, that it takes a village to raise a child. And they have decided to become that village – and they have stopped in their tracks, and they have listened, and above all else they have cared and protected the children they see around them.

Kinship and community care – I’m a believer!

The author, Atiya Bose, is the director of Aangan, an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work, and violence and abuse, to prevent and protect them from harm.