Help children to help themselves. Equip them with information.

31142…

The number remains ingrained in my memory. It’s deeply etched as if someone chiseled it on my mind, even though more than 30 years have passed since I learnt it. Sometimes, it just pops up in my mind and I find myself wondering what triggered it.

Indeed it might seem like just an odd collection of figures, yet it played a significant role in my life. Reciting this number  was among the first steps my parents took in preparing me for the outside world as a four year old who was about to start nursery school. It was their way of empowering me and my siblings to find our way home if we ever got lost or if something happened to any of us.  I don’t know how long my parents took to teach us but vividly remember the day I got it right. My parents were standing over me in the kitchen while I recited this set of figures, much to their delight.

Although I could neither read nor write then, I could say the numbers in the correct order. I guess having a mother who was a teacher also played a part in helping my memory.  I was firmly instructed to share that number with the police, or whoever assisted me, if I ever got lost. The message was clear! This number would be my lifeline if anything ever happened to me outside the safety of our home. The number, our home telephone number, would reconnect me to my family if we were ever separated.

I’m not sure whether it was the reward of my parents’ pleasure every time I got it right, or fear of being taken away from them that made me remember the number for the rest of my life. Whatever the incentive, it certainly worked.

Before I wrote this piece, I checked with my siblings and it turns out they too, remember the number well. This is despite the fact that we have grown up, left home, changed telephone numbers numerous times and had to recite a myriad of codes, passwords and digits in this increasingly digital world. In the midst of having to remember our identity card, passport, bank account, worker index, mobile phone, e-mail password, car licence and club membership numbers among many others, our old telephone number remains indelible in our memory boxes.

I am amazed though at what some modern parents take forgranted. I have heard harrowing stories of lost children failing to get help or receiving assistance late because they lack basic details about their parents.

Recently, I listened in horror as a radio announcement was made about a

Information is power. Empower children with basic information.

child who had wondered away from home but could not get help because he did not have basic information about his parents. Thankfully he wondered into a radio station, I would certainly not want to imagine what would have happened had he not. When asked where he lived, the child simply answered: “at home.” He had no idea of the name of his parents or the suburb where they live. In fact, he did not have any meaningful detail that could help to trace his parents. Consequently, the best the radio announcer could do was to broadcast the child’s name and describe what he was wearing in the hope that someone would come to claim him.

A few weeks later, I heard the story of a child who was kidnapped from nursery school and later left to wonder alone. She was found loitering, thankfully within her neighbourhood, and reunited with her family. One shudders to imagine what could have happened had she been dumped elsewhere as she did not have information that could have helped to trace her parents. In fact, she referred to every adult female as “mama,” which made her easy prey for kidnappers.

Thousands of children have been separated from their parents as a result of the conflict. At this camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) young children are encouraged to study images on a notice board to see if they recognize their parents. However, in the absence of pictures, children should be able to communicate enough information to help trace their parents.

The frequency of local incidents involving children who find themselves in difficult situations without the requisite information to take action is both astounding and disconcerting. Having interviewed organizations that provide tracing services to children who have been separated from their parents because of conflict, I am acutely aware of the important role information plays in facilitating the reunification process.  I have come across situations where families were separated by conflict and ended up at refugee camps in different countries. In such situations, basic information like someone’s name and seemingly minor details become vital for tracing and reuniting families. However, the process becomes all the more difficult when children are not equipped with such information.

If any of the children cited in the examples above had been removed from Zimbabwe either through being kidnapped, simply getting lost or as a result of the sudden onset of conflict, how long would it take to reunite them with their parents, if at all?

It seems rather ironic that my parents took precautions at a time when the world was safer, yet my generation is disregarding such matters of basic security in a more dangerous environment. I was struck by the contrast between my parents making us recite our phone number until we could not forget even 30 years later, and these poor children who are vulnerable because they lack basic information that could help trace their parents. This is particularly in view of the fact that world is a more dangerous place now than it was then. This is the era of human trafficking, sex trade, child pornography and ritual killings among a plethora of evil, yet basic precautions are disregarded.

I firmly believe we have an obligation to empower our children with information. We can not always be there to protect them and indeed anything can happen anywhere. However, while we may not be able to control all circumstances surrounding them, the least we can do is ensure that they have enough information to enable them to find their way home or out of difficult situations. Our role is to equip them with information so they can act on it when necessary. This should be done as early as possible in a child’s life. Don’t wait until they are older, just teach them what they need to know for their protection. While information will not solve all problems, it can at least assist. It certainly could make the difference between life and death or lost and found.

Let’s teach children what they need to know, it is amazing what the human mind can do when given the chance. Besides, it could potentially save their lives!

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