Preacher: Lucinda Dickens Hawksley
3 June 2007, 15:15 (Trinity Sunday)
Usually, when I hear people talking about my great-great-great grandfather – which happens with quite amazingly regularity on the radio or TV even all these years on – they are talking about his works or his private life, increasingly about the latter. Ironically, something that is very seldom touched upon – and yet which is so very relevant to us today – is his social work, how committed he was to it and how very important it was at changing the face of society.
Oliver Twist exposed even Queen Victoria to the shameful and desperate conditions of those forced to live in workhouses. Nicholas Nickleby was instrumental in closing down every one of those Yorkshire Schools Dickens wrote about so heartrendingly. American Notes was vociferous in its furious criticism of slavery. In Household Words Dickens campaigned tirelessly for education of the poor, the revision of the Poor Laws and for parliamentary reform. I believe it is not too strong to say that, without the social work and pioneering spirit of Charles Dickens, we could still be witnessing scenes such as those in his novels here in Britain today. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying we have no problem with poverty in the UK today, just that at least there are systems in place to help people, that hopefully everyone feels enfranchised to have their say and that the vast majority of British people have a much improved quality of life from that of their ancestors.
I spent the first part of this year, in a country where I was reminded of Charles Dickens and his words almost every day. I was working in Guatemala, in Central America, a country that has only just surfaced from almost four decades of civil war. I witnessed poverty there that would not have looked out of place in a lavish BBC production of Dickens. Joe the crossing sweeper was there in the face of every shoe-shine boy I saw – five year-old children labouring from dawn to dusk offering to shine the shoes of tourists and rich people for a pittance. The advent of trainers seems to have dealt a cruel blow to the careers of these small, ragged children. Oliver was in every little child I saw on the streets and Smike on those of the adolescents whose lives seemed really to hold no hope. I saw adults so worn down by hardships that they looked as old as my grandmother – who turned 90 last year – yet they were probably nearer my own age. The rural areas of the country were where the fighting had raged most furiously, and while travelling on buses around the country I saw children dressed literally in rags, like theatrical extras from Les Misérables, returning from working in the fields all day. The idea of going to school is something these children can only dream of. Although education is ostensibly “free” in Guatemala, the actual cost is prohibitive. Children attending school are required to have the correct school uniform, to buy their own books (including text books) and to bring their own food. Any child arriving at school without the exact uniform or books is sent home. Books often cost 2-3 times more than they would in the UK; yet the average wage of a maid in a rich part of Guatemala is approximately £17 a month. In a country where over 75% of the inhabitants live well below the poverty line, such demands are impossible for most parents to meet. In addition, children are needed to work, as families are utterly dependent on every member’s income.
I was working there with a children’s charity called Camino Seguro. A charity that works with the children from Guatemala City’s rubbish dump. At the time the charity was set up, eight years ago, the children and their families were all living inside the dump, like rabbits in a filthy burrow, in make-shift caves scraped out of the mounds of rubbish, furnished with anything they could salvage that wasn’t worth selling; an army of so many Noddy Boffins, although sadly there’s little gold to be found in the rubbish dumps of Central America. With dubious thanks to an appalling fire that raged angrily throughout the rubbish dump for several days in January 2005, the government of Guatemala was shamed into doing something about these forgotten people, so today no one is allowed to live there, they can arrive every day for work – their work is sorting through the detritus created by the first world in the hopes of finding something worth selling – but they have to leave at night and the dump is patrolled by armed security guards to ensure that they do. Now these families live in one of the world’s worst slums, a mass of shacks and decaying buildings that nestles right up to the edges of the dump, rife with drugs, guns and violence, overrun with the stench of decay and continually circled by vultures. I thought so many times how Dickens would have been appalled at the sight and plight of these people and I wondered how he would have written about it.
The following words came to mind, a passage from Oliver Twist, at the moment Oliver has first made acquaintance of the Artful Dodger and is being led through the streets of London to Fagin’s den:
“Although Oliver had enough to occupy his attention in keeping sight of his leader, he could not help bestowing a few hasty glances on either side of the way, as he passed along. A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses... Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth...”
I was working in a safe house for children who had been removed from abusive homes. They were children of the rubbish dump whose families or acquaintance had been identified as being so damaging to them, they couldn’t stay at home. In a place where it is common to see a breastfeeding mother nursing her child while sniffing glue, these children who had to be removed really are the most neglected of them all. I fell in love with them and with Guatemala, I had a truly amazing couple of months connecting with and helping them – although I think they possibly taught me more than I was able to teach them. The most terrible, angry days could be put behind me just by one child suddenly spontaneously holding my hand, hugging me or understanding somerhing I was explaining – these are children who do not trust adults, or anyone. At times it was really hard to deal with these incredibly damaged children, especially the older ones whose young lives had already been so blighted and whose expressions were so perfectly described by Dickens almost two centuries before, when he wrote about the inhabitants of Dotheboys Hall:
“Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men ... boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were ... every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys, brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness.”
Although these words were written in London in 1839, Dickens could have been writing about present-day Central America. It was shocking to me to see that these conditions still exist in our world.
Yet despite all this, I felt that there is hope. Not sadly for every child, a large number of them will fall through the net and return to the abusive situation they came from, especially the older ones. There is however a great deal of hope for the younger ones, the ones who haven’t yet been irreparably damaged. One twelve-year-old boy who has been in the project since he was very small is doing incredibly well at school and is obviously extremely intelligent. He is determined that one day he will be President of Guatemala. I hope he will be.
Although at times it was heartbreaking, my time in Guatemala was also one of great excitement as there are so many wonderful charities working out there, I met large numbers of people who are tirelessly devoting their whole lives to helping the poor and disenfranchised. I also finally met the child I have been sponsoring in Guatemala for the last six years, a lovely little boy called Alex, whose entire village turned out to greet me and welcome me into their home; I was deeply humbled by witnessing the incredible difference that my paltry £16 a month has made to an entire community. Alex and his three siblings all go to school, the family has clean water (which I am living proof of as they gave me salad for lunch!) and his family are happily making their way in life after the decades of war, together. Alex’s older brother is also training as a runner, it’s my hope that he will end up representing Guatemala in the 2012 Olympics in London.
I would urge anyone here who has been thinking about doing so, to look into sponsoring a child overseas as I am proof that, at least with the charity I do it through, Plan UK, the money really does get there and really does make a difference. I urge anyone who has been thinking about taking an exotic holiday, to visit Central America with all its stunning Mayan ruins, rainforest and fascinating indigneous culture, and therefore boost their infant tourist industry. I would also ask that everyone here today, just give a thought to those people of the world who are still living in conditions that we would describe as “Dickensian”, and ask that, if you take anything away from this service today, it is to go out and do something in the spirit of Dickens’s social work. Thank you.