THE CRUEL STREETS

*By Caroline Gichuki*

What is your immediate reaction when a street child passes near you? Probably we clutch our purses and wallets closer to us. If we have kids, we pull them closer to us to keep them away from the street child and other times we cross over to the other side of the road. Why? It is totally a normal human being’s reaction. We consider them dangerous and undeserving to be in the society. Well maybe what they say about street children is true – they are thieves, they are drug abusers, they smell, they are unscrupulous, etc. However, we have never thought to look at what brought them to where they are. It is true that homes have been set up for them but why do we still have street children out there? Have we ever wondered what it is that brought these kids to the streets? I thought about it and I came up with the following story. I hope it inspires you to change your view on street children.

*****

I watch them pass by as they look at me. They are watching me write something down on paper.  Some look at me pitifully while others look at me with contempt. I observe some children playing outside their mothers’ shops. I wonder if my kids will ever get such a chance. Beautiful, sophisticated young girls pass by and they look at me pitifully. Do they know that I am as young as them? Do they know that if given a chance I can dress up like them and look sophisticated? Do they know I wish to be like them, to laugh as if I have no cares in this world? I am only a young girl who is being forced by circumstances to live in the streets – begging and waiting for kind passersby to give me something with which to feed my two babies in the evening. The world is said to be a cruel place but I think it has been even crueler on me. Good Samaritans sometimes give me some food; others give me second-hand clothes. I just wish one of them would try to sit by me on the verandah stairs and listen to me and to my story. I wish they would not look at me and think how dirty and used up I am. 

My name is Jane. I have been living in and off the streets since I was thirteen years old. I am an only child. My father abandoned us when we were still very young leaving mother with the burden of raising me on her own. Ours was a hand to mouth kind of life. The little money mother got from tilling people’s farms she spent on getting us the meager basic needs. It was often not enough and sometimes we had to take only one meal a day – a cup of porridge in the morning, which would last till the next morning. Were it not for the free primary education announced by the president, I would never have set foot into a classroom. However, getting new uniforms for me was an uphill task for mother, so I had to make do with second hand clothes donated by our neighbors. My clothes were often sewed by mother and when we could spare some few coins we would take them to the tailor who would sew patches on them.  

Mother remarried, or rather, another man came into mother’s life and he became my new daddy. He was Kimani, a very brutal man. He beat up mother ruthlessly and she had to persevere. After all, he bought us food and even some clothes. Mother and I were very close. I was her little princess. Though I was still very young, I could see how she suffered in the hands of that ruthless man. I could see the painful tears as they fell down and the compressed anger. I could see the sacrifice, the big sacrifice she made so that her child could at least get some food and a roof over her head. 

One evening, it was very cold. Dark clouds had been forming all afternoon and by late evening, rain started falling. It rained heavily and he got home drunk and agitated as usual. We ran to our room when we heard him shout mother’s name. “Mama Jane you think I am one to wait outside my door for you to open? I provide for you and your good for nothing child,” he said to mother. “Baba….” Mom tried to explain. But she was stopped by the hot slap that landed on her face. That day he beat mother mercilessly. I ran and hid under the bed as mother always told me to do when he started fighting. I could hear mother’s cries for help amidst the slaps and kicks that landed on her. Till date, I still hear her screams. I shed so many tears when I recall the day. Where were the neighbors? Why did they not come to help mom yet they heard her scream? When it was all over and all was silent, I ran to check on mom. She was beaten up badly, disheveled and unconscious, I held her hands tightly hoping to see her open her eyes. I watched as her breathing slowed. I watched as she took her last breath. I was only twelve years old then.

Things happened so fast that I did not even get time to comprehend them. Police officers came, bundled up mom’s body, received some bribe from my evil stepfather and left.  Mother’s death was made to look like it was caused by an attack from thugs. The villagers came for the burial, sympathized with us and left. The nerve they had to come for the burial yet they listened silently as my mother was brutally murdered. None of them was brave enough to confront Kimani for his actions. Why? Because he gave them occasional jobs to till his pieces of land? Did that make him untouchable? After mom’s burial, Kimani kicked me out of his house and brought another woman to live in his house. 

Blood is thicker than water – or so I thought. I sought help from mom’s relatives and all of them sent me away. I was only a burden to them. Guess when you are in trouble, no one wants to be associated with you. That is how I ended up leaving in the streets. I remember my first night out in the cruel cold night, I lay on some used up sacks outside a well-lit shop. Despite the light, it was a scary night, drunkards passed by shouting like mad people and when the police were on patrol I had to run away into the darkness as I feared being arrested.

During the day I would wait for the county trash lorry to drop off the collected litter of the day and run to grab some food left overs to eat. I was not the only one as there were other street children so it was a scramble for survival. Sometimes, when lucky, I would make it out with an expired loaf of bread and I would run away fast before the other street children came to snatch it from me. It was a cruel world. I mentioned I have two children. When I began living in the streets I was a young girl, very naïve and innocent – the best prey for lustful men. 

One night as I lay on some old rags outside the shop, a white Land Cruiser came to a halt. A man got off the car, Mr. X. He was a stout, well-built man. He walked towards me. He gave me an offer that a desperate naïve girl could not resist. He offered to give me a job as a maid in his house. There was an assurance of food and a roof over my head. I could not possibly refuse. His house was large and very beautiful. His wife was a kind lady. I felt like the heavens had answered my prayers. My joy was short-lived.

One night when his wife was away on some family business, he came into my room and had his way with me. I was scared and he threatened to kill me if I told his wife anything. I suffered silently until one day I began feeling weak. I found myself vomiting occasionally. I decided to go for a checkup at the nearby clinic and the result was that I was expectant. I had mixed feelings, how would I raise a child yet I was only a child myself? Would Mr. X take responsibility for the child? When I broke the news to Mr. X, he threw me out of his house giving a deaf ear my incessant pleas for him to take pity on me. I was back to the cruel streets again, now with a child in my womb. I was only fourteen years then.

It was the same routine all over again. Scramble for food during the day, run away from the cops, beg for food from people and wait for shops to close down so that I can sleep out on the verandah. I was all alone in this cruel world. When my belly started to show, well-wishers began giving me some clothes and occasional food. When the time came, a Good Samaritan helped me get admitted into the hospital and I gave birth to my little boy. I left the hospital the following day. As if that was not enough, when my son was only two years, a drunken man came calling and he took advantage of me. I was expectant once more. This time I gave birth on the streets with the help of some street children. I was disgusted with myself and wished to die but I had to persevere for the sake of my two sons.

They have been raised and bred in the streets. They are now five and three years old respectively. They have not drunk cow milk or taken Weetabix like other normal babies but they are healthy. To fend for them I have had to do odd jobs. During the day, I toil under the hot burning sun just to get a few pennies to buy them bread at the end of the day. It pains me to watch my kids put out their hands to beg for alms from people. I know that their fathers are out there living their best lives not thinking of the damage they caused me or the little children who carry their blood. Every evening we have a spot outside a grocery shop where we sit as we look at the passersby. I almost shed tears when a little girl takes an apple from her mother and brings it to us and says “Take”. I accept it quickly in fear that she may change her mind. Her mother looks at us and I can almost read her mind. She is probably saying that I deserve the suffering for engaging in irresponsible sexual behavior at such a young age. Asking for alms is a difficult task because people either hurl insults at me or others just walk past me without even giving me a second glance.

Over the years I have grown to despise humanity but at the same time, I still depend on their mercy. I detest being pitied but if that is what will drive people to give me some few pennies or some little food then I welcome pity wholeheartedly in my life. I have dreams like all other people. I want to be self-independent and fend for myself but nobody is willing to give me that chance. After all, they will not gain anything from it. I want to better my education but how will I do that if I can’t even afford to get a shelter for my children. 

I have written this because out here it is a cruel world. You never know what may happen, one minute you may be alive the next minute you are dead. You see the street children inhaling glue, you think they are dirty but they are just trying to get themselves high as a temporary reprieve from the harsh reality they live in. Every human being has a story and street children are also human beings. Behind every street child there is a story that explains how they got to the streets. I have written down my story but only in a crappy old book. No one will ever read it.  Who would want to know what a street child has got to say? My story is not unique, there are other street girls out there with a story like mine but I dream that one day people will not walk on the other side of the road just because I am a street child. I dream that one day a pretty humanitarian journalist will walk towards me accompanied by camera men and will listen to my story. If everyone sought to help just one street child, the country, the world would not have any street children. Instead, there would be well fed and healthy kids who give stories of how they were saved from the cruel streets.

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