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:  http://glueboys.com/

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? 

    2 comments:

    1. Ray, what a fantastic blog! All these years here and I've not heard of anyone talking to the glue seller.

      Another question I would have for him, how many guys like him are in Kitale selling to the street kids?

      Would it be possible to find all of these guys, give them alternatives to selling glue and if so, would that stop the glue use in Kitale... or would someone else pick up where they left off...

      Thanks for going out of your comfort zone and pursuing real life.

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    2. Ray you are amazing and bold. I feel so blessed to know you and watching God use you to transform the lives of others. I am confident that you are making a difference! Keep up the great work loving others as you would have them do to you. See you soon!

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