Thursday, January 26, 2012

conversation with the glue dealer

(Photo taken by Ray Smith, 2012)

One of the issues with street boys in Kenya (in many places in the world, actually) is glue. Boys take to the streets and will often begin sniffing glue. Many of the boys that have no families and actually sleep on the streets will do glue to keep warm at night. Imagine wearing torn clothing that barely fits, maybe a pair of ripped flip flops or barefooted, and then sleeping outside with no blankets. With temperatures dropping in the mid to low 40's. It gets cold. Often the glue is sniffed because it dulls the appetite and boys do not feel that they are hungry. If you want more information on it, there was a really well done documentary filmed here in Kitale:

For a little while now I've been wanting to find the guys who sell the glue to the kids. I've heard different rumors to where they are but I couldn't find any kids that would take me. Yesterday I was with my friend Alex-Juma, who, by the way, is about 8 years old. Yesterday was probably the highest that I've ever seen this kid.  But he did show me the glue salesman. In the photo above you can see a green stand the says Mpesa. On the other side of that stand is a fruit table that sells mangos, bananas... and glue. Interesting combination, isn't it? I walked by this stand yesterday with Alex-Juma and decided that I'd go back again today without him. I wasn't sure how these guys would react and I did not want to put my friend into danger.

Today I went and talked with the guy selling the glue. He was pretty upset when I asked him if he sells glue.  Actually, he got up from his bench and got in my face. Within seconds I was surrounded by 4 or 5 of this dealers friends, all with fists raised. I very quickly explained that I wasn't there to judge him or stop him. I was there to talk to him because I was curious. I wanted to hear his story.

Once he saw that I wasn't a threat to him he calmed down. His friends also backed down. He wasn't willing to talk right there because it "was too public". We went a few yards away outside of a store that was closed. And we talked for 15-20 minutes.  In that time I asked him a lot of questions out of curiosity; and he very honestly answered. To be honest I couldn't understand his name and didn't want to ask him a 3rd time to repeat it. This young man is 20 years old. Here are some of the questions that I wrote down his answers to after I left:

  • How long have you been selling glue?
    • "Just since 1 year ago"
  • How did you get started selling glue?
    • "I came to town one day and a friend set me up."
  • Why do you start selling glue?
    • "I needed a job and couldn't find one. I have finished up to class 8 and had no more money for school" (education past 8th grade is not free in Kenya)
  • Do you have parents?
    • "No, they died in 2001. I sleep at my brother's home."
  • Where do you buy the glue from?
    • "A man comes from Mombassa [coastal town, about 16 hours drive away] every Sunday and I buy from him."
  • How much do you pay for it?
    • "1500 shillings (at the current exchange rate that's $17.65USD) for 5 liters."
  • How much do you sell it for?
    • He pointed to my water bottle and showed about 1/2 inch and said that much is 30 shillings.
    • He said that for every 5 liters he only makes about 200 shillings profit which may be explained by the next question:
  • Do you do glue yourself"
    • "Yes, I do glue at night from stress of the day"
  • How many customers do you have & how do they know to come to you?
    • Too many to count.  It changes every day.  The boys tell each other."
  • How many others sell glue in Kitale and do they charge the same?
    • "Yes, others sell too but not sure how many. The prices are about the same anywhere here."
  • Do you want to sell glue forever?
    • "No, I want to go back to school one day and be an engineer [mechanic]."
  • Can you set money aside each week to pay for that?
    • "No, I spend everything right away."
  • When do you sell glue?
    • "I am here today, yesterday and probably tomorrow and some other days.  From 7AM-7PM"
  • Is glue good or bad?
    • "Glue is very bad for you."
  • Does it bother you to sell glue to kids when you know that it's bad for them?
    • "No, it doesn't bother me at all. It's my job."
    • Can I take your picture?
      • "No, I don't like cameras. People come from churches and take pictures to get money for themselves."  
    I left this young man after our conversation in shock of his honesty. I left with a lot more knowledge than I had moments before. Based on the questions, in red I am inclined to believe him. Of all the questions to lie about, those two would be the ones. He knows that it is wrong. But he doesn't see any other way to make a living. You see, for him this is not an issue of right and wrong. No, it is not that black and white. For this young man this is an issue of life and death. Sell glue to kids and live. Don't sell it and starve to death.  

    To tell this young man that he's wrong doesn't matter to him because in his mind this is the only job is can have; it's also the only he feels worthy of having (which is a much deeper issue that deserves w blog all alone). I am by no means saying that he is right. But I am saying that in order for him to stop selling, he needs to see a new path that allows life.

    And which of us can honestly and justly judge him for making a living the only way he knows how? Which of us can say that we would not do the same thing if we were in his position? 

    Monday, January 23, 2012

    "Do you really love your baby?"

    I feel like every day I am in town is a new adventure - and I love it!  There is one particular woman that I see nearly every day I am in town.  I think that most people in Kitale have seen her.  She walks around with a baby strapped to her back while begging for money.  I've never given her money in all my time here.  You may be thinking that's terrible; what about the baby?  But let me explain that while the baby is surely suffering, giving her anything at all does no good for her baby.  In more cases than not when encountering her she smells like alcohol and acts very drunk.  A few weeks ago I was talking with her and asked her if she would like me to help her find a job so she doesn't have to beg anymore.  Her answer was, "no, just give me money".  The past few days I've been seeing her she still comes to me and points to her baby and puts her hand out.

    I saw her from down the road a bit today.  I happened to be walking the direction that she was in.  As I walked I saw her elbow her baby in the face to make him cry (because apparently a crying baby gets more sympathy).  It wasn't just one little nudge either.  She wound up and whacked him good.  She then reached around and smacked him a few more times.

    Seeing that I decided to stop and give her a talking to.  I tried explaining to her that she can't just hit her baby like that.  A local stopped to translate to make sure that she understood.  I know she speaks and understands English to some degree, still though, it was nice to have someone translate.  As I asked her if she would like someone to elbow her in the face like she just did to her baby all she could do was tell me to give her money.  Yes, she told me to.  She didn't ask - she demanded.

    I reminded her of my offer to help her find a job and of her response.  It didn't seem to get through that she is quite capable of working.  Then I asked her a hard question.  "Do you really love your baby?"  I told her that if she really did care for that child in the way that a mother should, she would have taken the opportunity to find a job to support her and her baby.  Again, the answer that came through the one translating was another demand for money as he pointed to the baby.  

    I have quite a few friends at home who, in the past couple of years, have become parents.  I am encouraged by a common theme amongst all of them:  sacrifice.  It's so awesome to watch as my friends' lives become more and more about their child.  It's evident how much these parents love their children.  It's evident when they begin giving things that they enjoy up because they desire more to be with their child at night.  Or when they give things up because they are saving money for the baby.  And then I look to this lady in town and I seriously question if she feels anything at all for that baby she carries around.  It seems like that child to her is just a way to tug on peoples' hearts to get more money from them.

    I've been accused by a few older street boys of being selfish because I won't hand out money; they say that I have so much and won't help others.  But the truth is that when someone asks for help, I do help.  There is only one person I have peace about giving money for food to and that's my friend Peter that I took to the hospital in December.  Others, who want me to give them money or buy them food I take them to the schools for street kids that will feed them at no charge while proving a free education.  I don't believe that a constant hand out does any good.  In fact, it just ensures that someone remains dependent on me.  It may make me feel good that someone needs me, but it doesn't help them.  I know that I could buy this lady some bread when I see her.  I'm sure that I could afford that.  But would it do any good?  What she needs is an opportunity to support herself.  What her baby needs is a mother who is sober.  And this is what was offered and in turn refused.  As much as it may suck, there comes a point when you realize that you can only help the ones that actually want to be helped.  Right now, this lady doesn't want help.  I pray that one day she truly does want that help.  I pray that she sobers up and starts to be more that a walking stroller to her baby and becomes a mother.

    But for now, I'll focus on those who are interested...


    Thursday, January 19, 2012

    If we're friends, what is my name?

    I love hanging out with the street boys here in Kenya.  But there are some that truthfully aren't interested in talking; they want your money and nothing more.  I see many kids like this all the time, and many adults who are no different.  They say things like, "my friend, buy for me bread".  Or, "my friend, buy the fruit I am selling".  As I was walking a few days ago I began to think about what a friend is.  Some of these people I have never seen before.  A kid called me friend and then told me to buy him bread the other day.  I asked him what my name was, because if we were friends, he would know.  Of course, he didn't know.  I explained to him that a friend is more than an open wallet.  A friend is not someone who just gives you things.  A friend is someone that you know.  A friend is someone who will talk to you.  This particular child had no more interest in talking.  He only wanted me to buy him things.  To me, that's not a friendship.  Another favorite example is the kid who was at one time taken off of the street and given food, clothing, a home and education.  He chose to return to the streets and beg.  When I questioned him on this he told me I was selfish and cursed me out.  A few days later he saw me and wanted to call me "friend" as he asked me for money again.

    I have definitely made some friends with some of the street boys.  I think of Alex-Juma who every time he sees me runs over and gives me a hug.  The only thing he will ask for is if I have a ball in my bag so we can play catch.  Or sometimes for the checkers board.  He never once asked to keep anything.  When he calls me friend, he means it.  We talk.  We hang out and have built a relationship.

    I think of Peter.  Peter is the young man that I took to the hospital after he was beaten up.  I see him in town and we talk.  He doesn't continue to ask for more and more.  He asks how I'm doing.  He tells me how his day is going.  Instead of asking me for money he tells me that he wants to give back to me when he has money.  I have to keep telling him that he doesn't need to; his friendship is all I want in return.  We were talking the other day and some other street boys came up to chat.  Peter looked at me and said we should walk away.  When we left he said that the other guys were pick pockets and he didn't want them to steal from me.  In other words, he was looking out for me.  That's a friendship.

    When I think of friends from home, I think of guys like Jim that I've known since grade school.  He's a guy that I don't have to spend time with every week.  But when we hang out, we always have a great time.  He's a guy that I know I can call at any time.

    When I think of a friend, I don't think of the people selling things from the street that don't even care what my name is.  I certainly don't think of the one who cursed me out.  I think of the one that will sit down and have a conversation.

    I know that the word "friend" is used often, but for me, I want to be more meaningful when I use it.  When I call someone friend I want to mean it.  If I call you a friend, then I want to know you.  When I say friend, there is a commitment behind the word.

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012

    What makes you mad enough to act?

    Some random thoughts:

    Last week a few of us here watched the movie Patriot Games.  The other day as I was walking into town I was thinking about the dialogue between Harrison Ford and Samuel L. Jackson's characters.  As the film starts Ford, playing Jack Ryan, is in London and sees an attack on the royal family.  He comes out from behind the car he's ducking behind and takes down a few of the terrorists.  He's un armed, but manages to get one of their guns.  In the exchange he is shot in the shoulder.  Later on Jackson's charter asks him why he did it.  Compliments of IMDB, here's the exchange:

    Lt. Cmdr. Robby Jackson: So, you just waded on in like John Wayne. Why'd you do it? What were you thinking, man? 
    Jack Ryan: I don't know. I wasn't thinking. 
    Lt. Cmdr. Robby Jackson: That's it? You sound like some of my students. 
    Jack Ryan: It just pissed me off. I couldn't just stand there and watch him shoot those people right in front of me...Just made me mad. 

    I really like Jack Ryan's reply.  It just made him mad.  It made him mad to see this group of terrorists killing people.  It made him angry enough to leap into action.  As I thought about those short lines I realized that many of my experiences in Kenya have a similar explanation.

    As I walk through town I see so many things that don't sit well with me.  I see security guards that beat children with night sticks.  I saw many people standing by mocking as a young man was beaten half to death.  I saw a group of thieves stealing from people for more than 4 months straight.  It seems that in almost any direction I look there is some kind of oppression.  Police are taking bribes, innocent children are forced to the streets by parents that quite frankly shouldn't be parents, people are being oppressed.

    We all, I think, have something in us that tells us that these things are wrong.  For me, I see these situations and on some level it makes me mad.  Mad enough to do something.  I can't stand by and simply watch some of these things and do nothing.

    I think that there is a righteous anger that exists.  It's an anger at a situation that isn't right.  It's an anger that forces us to leap to action.  I see this level of oppression and it's the situation that angers me.  It's the attitudes that bother me.  We all have different passions.  We all have different things that make us mad.  We all also have a choice to make when we see an injustice.  We can  either sit by and allow it or to get up and do something about it.

    What makes you mad enough to act?