Sometimes reality hits you when you’re not ready for it.
My mind was clouded as I got off a matatu near Nyayo stadium after a long day of meetings and bad coffee. It was late and I was ready to go home and collapse on my bed. But clearly, this matatu driver wasn’t as eager as I was to get to town so he stopped the vehicle and told us to get out.
As I walked to catch a connecting bus into town, 3 street kids stood up and blocked the path about 30 feet in front me. I was entirely too tired to entertain being robbed, so I tightened my grip on my laptop bag and balled up a fist just in case. Then I engaged the tallest one, obviously in his mid to late teens, in a stare-down. To my surprise, his expression wasn’t that normal angry, removed smugness you see on thugs. He just looked sad. Desperate and sad. I didn’t let that detract me and kept to my regular protocol. Then he said: “Please. Stop. Listen.” In English. Fatigue, frustration and past experiences had told me that I knew better. I continued walking and they let me pass peacefully. But they followed me. And when he began to plead again, I retorted quickly: “Sina pesa.”(I don’t have any money) Then one of the smaller boys said “No. We don’t have money.” Again, in English. So I stopped. “And we don’t wan’t money. We want food. And water.” And then he nodded at the little doggy bag I had in my other hand.
It’s easy to get so preoccupied living your life that you forget that others don’t have that luxury. It’s easy to get so blinded by the overwhelming mischief and deceit, that you overlook the real need of your neighbors. It’s easy to feel helpless and find solace in that excuse.
What isn’t easy though, is actually being helpless. No solace. No excuse. No refuge from reality. Just the day in and day out of Sisyphean poverty and deprivation. When it’s just you in your weakest form, trying to lift that unbearable load, walking over unquelled flames for an undefined distance towards an indomitable opponent, “life” takes on a completely different meaning. “Struggle” doesn’t even begin to scrape a flake off the tip of the iceberg of what basic survival entails. This is as close to death as you can get with a pulse.
The three boys came from very similar yet drastically different backgrounds. The oldest was a former child soldier who had been hiding out in Kenya for quite a few years. He escaped and was found by some well-wishers after 2 years of hide-and-seek in Uganda. He had been dumped in Western Kenya about 6 years ago, when he was just 12. He briefly went to school before poverty evicted and expelled him in 2006. After months of confusion, he began travelling to places where Red Cross or UN had set up camps. Unfortunately, he began doing this as the post-election violence peaked. It was back to hide-and-seek again.
Which is where he met the second kid, the one who’d spoken to me. He had a relatively normal rural life until his parents and siblings were killed during tribal clashes. He had been “left for die”, he said, showing me scars and missing teeth in between taking gulps out of my water bottle. After he was found by the older boy, he began running and refused to look back. He explained that he had family in Tanzania somewhere and that was where they were going.
The youngest boy never said more than 2 words(“Thank you”). I gathered he was probably only 5ish. He spoke Amharic and very shattered English. His story was unclear to the two other boys. All they know, by whatever certitude, was that his parents had died. I never pursued the issue. Partially because it made everyone uncomfortable. But mostly because I was scared to know.
I stood there, watching them have a picnic on the bench and asked why the didn’t go to the nearby church (Don Bosco) and seek refuge there, or any of the numerous shelters in the area; at least for the night. They looked at each other as if unsure who should explain it to me. As it turns out, they were scared beyond reason. Every time they stopped somewhere, somebody tried to kill or hurt them. Especially the older boy. The few times they did seek out help, they were turned away or worse. It was at this point that they explained that apparently, little boys were being sold to soldiers and “recruiters”. The two older kids both looked at the little Ethiopian kid who was now consumed in finishing up my sandwich and licking up every crumb. So they resolved to never splitting up and not stopping anywhere for more than a week unless they had to. They had had a little bit of education and so were more aware than they should have been of just how dire their situation was.
I had not lied, for the record. I really did not have any money outside of my bus fare. The little extra I normally do keep, had already been given away. I tried to explain that to the kids, but they were so happy about the food and drink that it didn’t seem to matter anymore. I left them with the containers and told them I had to rush home.
They said and screamed thank you even as the bus drove away. The whole ride back, I was sitting there wishing I could help. Wishing I could help more. Wishing it wasn’t so complicated. Those were 3 kids. There’s 10 million or more out there. It’s easy to feel like you can’t help such a situation as an individual, and shove your hands into your coat pockets. You can be faulted for doing so. But you can also justify it. So can a church that’s been robbed and defaced too many times. Or an NGO that’s gotten swindled by corrupt locals. Or a multinational that’s gotten tired of donating to causes that don’t exist.
So what does one do? Doing what you can is a good place to start. Spread awareness, educate yourself, show support. If you can read this, you can teach someone something. You don’t have to be the change, but you can spark it. And contribute to it. Put an end to senseless tribal feuds. Yes, you can do that. Not you, the singular reader, but you the plural readers. Each one, teach one. If you all say one word against it, each, then maybe collectively the message will get to the ears of those who need to hear it. It costs you nothing to try. With elections coming up, in a country this divided, we need to start doing something now before we wind up in an avoidable situation we can no longer contain.