In the last week I have been on 2 street walks, to meet some of the kids who live/work on the street and see how the mentors carry out outreach for FoH and Lubuto Libraries. The first was during the day and the second at night time, and on both occasions we went to the City Market. Before our first visit, one of the mentors told me that street kids are “invisible” and I didn’t really know what he meant. However now I realise that this is true – there are huge numbers of children on the street, who somehow blend into the background until you actually start to look for them.
It’s really hard to explain what it is like visiting the kids on the street. I was overwhelmed by how friendly they were and how they all wanted to speak to me and find out about where I am from, etc. The kids sniff a substance called Stika, which comes from Benzene (jet engine fuel). They buy it in plastic bottles and its pretty powerful stuff – you can smell it on their breaths when they speak to you. However this is not as bad as the other substance available, (which is more rare in Lusaka – it comes from human waste). Some of the kids were obviously very high and struggled to string a sentence together.
On the morning walk we met a girl who couldn’t have been more than 16 or 17 and she had 2 very young children. Vasco made some calls and got somebody from one of the Facilities for girls to come out and take her, but then the girl’s ‘street husband’ arrived and the girl ran away from us. A similar thing happened on the evening walk – we did take 5 or 6 young boys off the streets on that occasion, but there was another lad (who had only just arrived in Lusaka) and he ran away from us. It is very sad, but you can’t force things, and it is understandable that the kids would be suspicious of a bunch of adults trying to get them into a car! I hope we will see both those kids again and maybe can go about gaining their trust.
However I have also been able to see what a great impact the Outreach programme has. I met one boy who has started coming to FoH to play football since he met the mentors on the street. His name is Moses and I invited him to come and visit me in the Library one day. (I invite a lot of people to come and visit me but up until now, none of them have shown up!). The day after I met him, I was on my way to lunch and he stopped me to say hello. I told him how pleased I was to see him and invited him to have some nshima with us. Later in the afternoon he was sitting outside the Library so I went to invite him in. He said he didn’t want to come in, so I sat and chatted for a little while. Suddenly he said “Let’s go!” – when I asked where, he said “In the Library!” So we went in and watched the mentoring session that was going on at the time. He was smiling and laughing along with the game being played and when the mentoring itself began, he stayed to listen for a while. He didn’t want to join in but he did say he would come and visit me tomorrow, so maybe he will feel more confident about taking part soon.
Similarly there was a young boy who had been resident at FoH and then ran away. We saw him on the street and he looked pretty scared – I think he thought he would be in trouble with us! I told him how nice it was to see him and how I missed him coming into the Library to read with me. He told me that he missed the Library too and I invited him back whenever he wanted to come. The next morning he was there, although I unfortunately wasn’t around when he popped in. I hope I’ll see him another day.
For hygiene reasons I am told not to shake hands but to bump fists with the people I meet on the street. I find this really hard – first because it is now an automatic reflex to shake hands with anyone and everyone, and second because it makes me feel a bit like a dad at a school disco! I have noticed that the boys on the street really like to shake my hand and keep hold of it while they talk to me, and this has made me think about how often they get any kind of physical contact with another person – especially a white woman. I can’t offer these boys very much – I don’t have the skills or experience to mentor them; I can’t understand what they are going through because I have lived a life of huge privilege; but I can hold their hands and put my arm around them and dance with them and make them feel like I value their company for 5 or 10 minutes. So the fist bumping has gone for good, and the hand sanitizer gel is applied liberally as soon as I get home!
My friend Sarah came with us on the street visits and she commented that seeing the conditions in which these boys live had rocked her faith in humanity. I can see her point, but for me it’s the opposite. I look at the boys we meet, and see how friendly they are despite the lives they lead, and I think about the strength that they have inside of them – wherever it comes from. I see the kids at work, who have just had brilliant end of term reports from school, and are telling me that they want to become lawyers and journalists and pop stars and footballers (of course!), and I am in awe of them.
Before I came to Zambia, one of my friends told me a story: there once was a little girl who went to the beach. She found thousands of starfish which had been washed up by the tide, and they were all dying. So she began to throw them back into the sea, one by one. Her parents came to find her and told her off: “Stop it! You can never help all of them, your work is pointless!” But the little girl replied “I am not counting the ones I can’t help, I am counting the ones I can.” I know that there will always be kids on the street, but I look at the people I work with, and I see how much of their lives they have dedicated to throwing the starfish back in the sea (however clichéd that may sound), and it gives me huge hope.