I WAS born in the middle of World War II when children died in their millions, and mothers struggled to keep them alive in a world exploding with new weaponry and unending warfare, with fathers lost in nuclear conflicts, and superpowers annihilating smaller nations.
It is not just soldiers who die in war and violence; women and children, the elderly and the sick, refugees and the homeless, civilians and non-combatants of all kinds die in equal numbers. Babies die in bombed hospitals, young mothers perish because of neglect, the lack of drugs and the absence of doctors and midwives.
When 2000 years ago all the boy children of Bethlehem were massacred, a young child called Jesus was the real target. His family escaped with him to nearby Egypt. His time had not yet come. He grew to full manhood, and was killed by the colonial powers of his time.
Even today children keep dying in wars, for example in the Middle East, in revolutions in Latin America, through crime and drug addiction in the US, through unemployment in Africa and Asia, while migrating from great economic misery to “greener pastures”, crossing rivers and seas.
Children die in ethnic conflicts, in race wars (apartheid, “gukurahundi”, Rwanda) and lethal epidemics in tropical rain forests (Ebola!), and as “child soldiers”, being taught to shoot and kill before they have grown up enough to tell the difference between good and evil, and know that human life is infinitely precious.
Most childhood diseases can be eradicated, polio, measles, scarlet fever, mumps, diphtheria, tuberculosis, whooping cough, tetanus and malaria. But do we actually make the effort? Are we determined and committed to save the children?
Their parents, their brothers and sisters, families, clans and tribes cry to their Creator, to spirits and prophets: “How can our Creator, if He is a loving God, allow the children to suffer like that?”
Most people on this planet have long given up on this question. But there is an answer, hidden, secret, unknown to many, but it can be found.
It is the birth of a child. A messenger told a young woman: “You will bear a child, and name him Jesus.” This is where the Christian faith began.
Every child on this Earth is precious because of Him. We must accept every child with a loving embrace, because our Lord and Maker loves it, embraces it, gives it life and power. That is our Faith.
Even in the midst of war, epidemics and diseases, we care about children. Once the Spirit of the Creator dwells in us we care about the youngest and most vulnerable.
This week our children go back to school. Many parents, also single mothers, worry very much about getting their children back to school. Without education they have no future.
There is a race going on to make sure those children will have a future. Mothers turn to cross-border trading. It takes many hours to get across borders into neighbouring countries and to buy what children need for sale to Zimbabwean parents who want their children to look smart when they arrive at school. And successfully selling boots, school uniforms and satchels in townships, on farms and mine compounds is hard work. Those mothers will not have much sleep these days.
I have a friend who has no children of her own, but is in charge of hundreds of childen who have lost their parents. Another one is in charge of a school with 1 000 children, a tough job when parents cannot pay the fees. There are women without families of their own, but as midwives they have helped hundreds, maybe thousands of children to arrive in this world safely. They have done so because the spirit of mercy and compassion dwells in their hearts.
There was a time when teachers were respected and highly regarded. Teaching was not just a job to make money, but a vocation for men and women who loved children. Government provided them with living wages, transport and housing. Government can do so again if it does not waste much of the budget and spend too much on war and weapons, rather than on health and life. We will have nobody to nurse us and cure us when we are sick, unless our young people study science in school to be ready for a career in medicine and healthcare.
The walk-out by medical workers, and government firing many of them, have cost the lives of mothers and their little ones who were not welcomed into this world.
“Let the children come to me and do not prevent them,” said the son of Mary, having barely escaped himself from the massacre carried out by a tyrant.
This message must transform our world where the little ones are shunned. “See that you do not despise one of these little ones” (Lk 18: 10).“They are loved by my Father who loves you too, and wants you to love them as well”.
If you walk in the footsteps of the man born in Bethlehem and grown up in Nazareth, he calls you to stop all abuse of children and all violence inflicted on their mothers.
When schools open again, let us stop where necessary, so children can cross the road on their way to school. They are our children, the children of Africa.
They depend on us.
Fr Oskar Wermter SJ is a social commentator and writes here in his personal capacity