Featured Image: Salem_Beliegraphy
Slideshow by: Lubnah Abdulhalim
When I first started my work in Gladshouse (an NGO dealing with the homeless) in 2014 and saw the pathetic state of street life, I thought I wouldn’t make it to the end. Surprisingly, I was happier than usual and I gained weight. My mum always kept asking, ‘what are they feeding you there that’s made you gain? I think I should let you stay there always.’ Well I wasn’t surprised by her surprise. Everyone who knows me well, knows that I only gain weight when I am very much relaxed; something I’m not really good at. And ironically, out of all the places I’ve been, this depressing place made me happy. One of the first things I was asked when I joined the team was, ‘Ain’t you scared?’ Yes I was. My colleagues had already told me of the risks available; they lie. They steal sometimes. They can be flirty when high on glue and sometimes even without the glue. Nonetheless, they respect you when you respect them. Treat them like normal human beings, come down to their level and act like their mate to understand them.
Perhaps it is true when they say, for you to find happiness; you should first offer it to someone else. I didn’t have any specific post for I was a teacher, a social worker, a journalist and a marketer all at the same time. I wasn’t particularly a hero or anything, yet I worked with the real heroes who worked day and night to ensure the homeless are not forgotten. Volunteers from all over the work coming over just to make a difference in someone’s life. It was more of an exposure and adventure to me; something I had never seen in my life. Something worth seeing, experiencing and telling the world about.
Just the other day, one of my many bosses bumped into me as I headed to work and he offered me a lift as he too was heading there. We stopped in a store and my boss alighted. Just a few minutes after, one of the homeless boys I knew came and knocked on my window pane. I hesitated; I didn’t know how my boss would react when he sees me talking to him so I decided to step out of the car.
“Do you remember me?” I asked almost in a whisper but he didn’t reply. He was high on glue I noticed so I didn’t bother ask my question again. I remembered his name; they call him Mowgli, a very thin guy almost always walking with a stagger. He had escaped from the center several times as he went through rehabilitation and he was among the oldest survivors in the streets. He wasn’t really old in age, just old in the streets. I never knew his real name though. You never get to know because they keep changing their names as much as they change their stories of survival. I also never knew why they call him Mowgli, perhaps he was like the Mowgli we know of from the jungle book or he just liked the story? I never knew. Anyway my boss appeared shortly after that and quickly asked, ‘is everything okay?’ Mowgli went away…and my boss wanted to know more of his story. Several times in different times, I met several others on the streets in town. They come to beg for money and I realize they don’t remember me. They perhaps meet so many volunteers and perhaps we never really impacted their lives as we thought we did or perhaps they are just too busy surviving. (Call them survivors. They prefer that name).You can’t really blame them. But I never forgot them and I remember a few names still. I remember them for they impacted my life more than I did to theirs. And most of all, I really miss that place.
When you walk around town and meet those small children running about to beg for money, most of them are not homeless. For someone who has experience with street life you can almost identify and pinpoint exactly who is a beggar and who is homeless. Most people don’t understand that; Not all beggars are street children and not all street children are beggars. Most of the children begging in town have homes and sometimes, healthy parents who have just decided that the shortcut to survival is using the kids. So they come all the way from their homes and spread across town. The children are sometimes threatened to bring a certain amount of money, if not, they face the consequences. They never want to admit how they are forced of course but when persuaded they speak out. It can be so depressing listening to them. They will tell you that their mum is on the other street and their other siblings in other parts of the town. True that most are from very poor families and some have single parents, yet it doesn’t justify the use of blackmailing children to gain money. And these kids are really experts in convincing. When it is on a Friday they will tell you, ‘Leo ijumaa nisaidie nikale’ or how they would tell you of not having fare going back home and they can be so persistent in begging for the money. Wonder what the consequence is when they don’t meet the required amount. Perhaps no food tonight? Or being beaten? Or what other kind of punishment? I remember what one of my lecturers told me when we were approached by a boy who was begging. “Never entertain the habit of beggars. Perhaps if we all stop giving them whenever, then they will be forced to work like the rest of the world.” Of course there are those very genuine beggars who really deserve to be helped but not the ones who use their children as a source of money. For a while now, I detest walking in town, seeing all those children rushing to cars and people and insisting on getting something. I detest seeing them being used like that yet I am helpless so I just close my heart; (if there is anything like that), close my eyes and my ears. Walk as fast as I can as I still debate what exactly is the right thing to do; give them the money they are blackmailed for, or simply not entertain the bad habit of begging?
The homeless people on the other hand lead quite a different life. Some are beggars yes but when you go to the slum area where they live, you would see most of them hustling in one way or another. Some collecting garbage, some collecting bottles, some are conductors and many other of these petty jobs. You won’t believe this, but one fellow in the street even has a video room where they play movies and he charges his fellows for entrance. Some wear so neatly that you may never guess that they are homeless. The ladies are most of the times prostitutes and some give birth right in the street. I remember one of the very young girls in the street told me that the past three generations have lived in the streets; her grandmother, her mother and now her and her many siblings. Many girls are raped and used by men at very young age. It is so heart breaking when they tell you their journeys. Well some are very well-fabricated stories that can make you break down in tears. Damn they can lie! They know how to make you so empathetic and make you want to offer your entire life for their sake. But for the social workers they’ve known for years, they are able to play with their psychology and know their true stories. Some are so addicted to street life that they can no longer stay out of it. They are taken to centers for rehabilitation but end up running back to the street; they can’t live without the glue and many other of the practices only allowed in the street.
Years on after leaving the organization, I learnt that their ‘leader’ who used to take control of everything going on in their slum area (the place is called Maboxini because of the houses made of boxes I suppose) used to sodomize the young boys. I was shocked, perplexed, surprised, disgusted all at once. The same man whom we had trusted to take us around the slum area safely; the man everyone outside and inside the slum area had faith in. The same man who was considered the hero of slum land. The same man who was the hope of the children turned out to be a beast. I got to hear more of such heart breaking stories in the streets. Very small girls being made wives to big boys and of families separated by fate. Stories of boys and girls who couldn’t stay in foster care due to drug addiction. Stories of stigma and isolation by the society etc etc. There is a wall right at the end of the slum land; a huge wall separating them from a totally different world. On the other side is a playground where private school children come to play. And sometimes, standing on slum land, you could see the swings moving high up and down rhythmically. I used to wonder how it really feels for the street children who used to sit right on top of the trees and seeing all that; what are their thoughts in such moments? Perhaps, ‘this could be me?’ or ‘maybe some day this would be me in a private school, neat uniform and a huge smile as I swing and play?’ Sigh. But perhaps what made me relaxed with them was how happy they were despite their very sad state of living; how they play football of no rules. The games are quite funny, how the ball keeps going over the fence because some are high on glue and kick the ball with so much vigour and how the games are played with all age ranges and genders. How they would eat so excitedly and ask questions as they are taught the basics of education. How they would be concerned about their homeless mates who are locked up in cell. How they really really appreciate the food in their plates. How they never hesitated to show their gratitude to the volunteers who have dedicated their lives to help them. There were some good stories as well; like how one of the oldest boys in the street got to meet his mum after 20 years of separation by the efforts of Gladshouse, stories of street children going through rehabilitation and joining school again, stories of children being taken in foster homes and living well, stories of street world cup, stories of survival and hope. How they find joy and happiness in the smallest of things. By the time you leave that place, you know the real meaning of hope, struggle and perseverance. I remember talking to one dumb boy who was in the street world cup team. I interviewed him right before they left to Brazil. Can you believe it? Some people out there make it possible for street children all over the world to meet on a football tournament! and in Brazil!! You can imagine their excitement. So my interview with him was on written paper and in English because they are only taught in English in the special care schools. It was one of the cutest interviews I ever did I my life!
I made the above clip right before the world cup team left to Brazil for I was completing my attachment too. I remember how the CEO broke down in tears after seeing it. Amazing right? Amazing and amusing how someone who has dedicated her entire life to street children still cries for them. When I showed the clip to the boys, they were really excited about it. Well, majority don’t understand English so they didn’t really get what the clip was about but they kept laughing at their photos and shouting out the names of their colleagues. It made me overjoyed.
Working here, I saw humanity being restored. I saw love being painted on a dirty patch of white paper. I saw rainbows of hope and flowers of faith in a place where a seedling would never bloom. I learnt to appreciate life and most importantly, that no one should never under estimate what you can do for people less advantaged than us. Take part in restoring humanity today. Make a difference.
Still, I miss these beautiful souls.
#The best way to find yourself is in the service of others. -Mahatma Gandhi
If you liked this article then you might also like: “The tender forgotten side of the assumed devils” and ‘a ray of hope’ right here in my site. Don’t hesitate to ‘search’ for it.