Chapter Two – Into the night
Mary and Gill don’t speak as they leave the stadium steps behind. Mary chatters and laughs with the boys accompanying them and Gill tries to do the same. The weight of the unspoken “what if?” bears down on both of them.
“What if Peter doesn’t persuade Joshua to find us?”
Mary paused at the bridge and gazed down thoughtfully to the boy’s hidey hole below. This was the territory of some of the hard-core, long time street kids.
“We will head out to the bus Station Gill, let’s see if we can’t find this new kid.” Her tone was firm, her decision made. She would return to the bridge tomorrow night when her volunteer charge was back in the safety and comfort of the home.
As in cities all over the world the bus station is a hub of activity and a likely spot for the homeless to gather. The local traders recognise Mary and their respect for her is clear. Wherever she goes she brings a feeling of camaraderie and understanding.
Mary is quickly distracted as a group of older boys point to the new kid; she heads over to him leaving Gill talking with the boys.
“Soccer Madam, we likey de soccer.” One of the older boys had finally understood Gill’s question and he freely translated for the boys.
“Ahhh, OK. So Manchester United?” Gill offered.
Two words: and the conversation was transformed. The boys were cat calling and high fives went around with gusto. In the ensuing gabble Gill realised she had started a debate. She grinned, feeling more comfortable: this was the same the world over. Men, boys whatever, get them onto football and they will argue for their team for hours. Catching some of the references flying about, she tries again.
Now the boys focus on her, their eyes show their shock.
Gills grins foolishly, she’s in! For five minutes she is the centre of the boy’s attention as they throw names and teams at her testing her knowledge, high fives and comfortable slaps on the back are her rewards when she recognises something correctly. She could be stood at a bar in any sports club in England on a Saturday night she thinks. Then she guiltily remembers Joshua and looks again at her surroundings. As she stands amidst some of the least respected of the world’s population her thoughts focus on the harsh realities of life.
“In a bar in England the guys discussing football would have pints of beer in their hands, not bottles of glue hidden in their sleeves.”
Mary returns pleased to find Gill more relaxed and at ease. She catches Gill’s eye and nods across the busy station, they are on the move.
“What’s the new boy’s story Mary?” Gill catches up to Mary, keen to hear and understand. Mary stops and turns to Gill her face serious.
“Elisante’s story?” She looks around the bus station her eyes sad and her shoulders slumped. “Abuse, hunger, death in the family, HIV, no roof on the family home. Elisante’s story is the same as all of their stories Gill. When and if we get him to the home we can find out more but for now he says he is from a remote farming village outside Arusha and that his mother’s new partner chased him out of the home when he returned after school with no money to contribute.”
The smile returns as suddenly as it had left and Mary straightens up as she turns away.
“OK let’s see who is hiding over there, waiting for the late bus to arrive from Dar.”
They move on and Gill sees the truth in Mary’s earlier words. The boys always report new kids. They want to see Mary help them. despite some of them being beyond the help of the centre. The street traders also tell of any newcomer they see, even the shoe shine men who are the source of the boys glue habit, even they will talk and tell.
As they walk, talk and mix with these boys, Gill forgets her earlier fears and worries, nasty words like dangerous delinquents no longer haunt her thoughts. She is sad to realise street kids are an issue that nobody wants, certainly not the kids, they mostly dream of a better life. Generally they are good kids begging for a break and the way they trail alongside “teacher” vying for her attention is proof of this.
The night has closed in around them and time has passed quickly, suddenly Mary hustles Gill into a taxi and it is time to leave. Gill winds down the taxi window calling out as they leave.
“Tomorrow, kesho. At the drop in centre, yeah?” Her eyes are misty as the taxi pulls away, her words a plea not a question.
“Ok Gill, so now we go back to hotel and get some food, yeah?” Mary turns in the front seat to face Gill.
“Uhuh, yeah OK. But we didn’t see Joshua?”
“Not tonight, no we didn’t but maybe in the morning.” Mary holds onto the latest news she has received from one of Peter’s boys sent to find her at the bus station earlier.
There had been an incident. Joshua had received a beating and was making his way to the Red Cross Centre seven kilometres outside town where they would tend his wounds for free. Mary sighed, the details were unclear but she understood it had not been other boys. This meant either the local police or worse still the sungu sungu, local vigilante groups set on ridding the streets of the boys they consider a nuisance and threat to safety. She was not about to introduce Gill this level of the issues tonight.
As they slowly drive down the bumpy backstreet to the hotel Mary points out the street girls they had seen earlier. No more than kids, lined up and waiting to be chosen outside the bars and cafés. Girls on the streets are either taken as house maids, often forcibly and kept as slaves, or put to work selling their tiny bodies to satisfy the needs of men often old enough to be their fathers.
The two women head into the hotel’s bar area where the television plays a music channel with cheerful, happy sounds. They had pre ordered their chicken suppers before leaving for the streets, clearly the staff here are familiar with Mary’s routine on such occasions.
“All the boys have stories, Gill. You will need to accept that. Of course it is important to understand the issues surrounding the reasons the boys are on the streets but you cannot get caught in each individual story. It will tear you up and make your time here harder and you must share your time and caring with them all, not a select few whose story has gotten into your heart.” Mary’s words were kind and clearly formed through experience.
“It’s just that,” Gill paused pushing the food on her plate around. She had lost her appetite. “I would have paid for a room for Joshua. Really.” She sounded petulant, like a child who has been refused something they want.
“And Elisante?” Mary looked hard into Gill’s eyes. “And Peter? And Hamisi, the boy who was hassling you earlier?” Mary picked up her chicken biting into the flesh of the drumstick and tearing it away into her mouth forcefully.
“Yeah, Hamisi too. Just because he isn’t small with a cute smile it doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve the same treatment as Joshua. Get it?”
“I’m sorry Mary. You must hate having to do this with the volunteers, you have so much else to do and we must be a burden” Gill smiled at Mary and picked up her own chicken. Somewhere deep inside she knew Mary was right.
“Hey, no. Don’t ever think that. What you guys do is amazing. We all respect that you give your time like this. But you, Gill, I can see you heading for trouble if you get too caught up in individual stories. You cannot rescue the world, Gill. We can only do what we can do. Pole pole, slowly slowly.”
Gill laughed and the mood lightened, she had heard these words before. Her friends back home had all said the same to her. You can’t change the world, be happy to make a difference to just one child at a time.
After the meal Mary stood to leave, a friend waiting to accompany her back to her room at the drop in centre. The two women had talked music and love lives and swapped stories of their different cultures.
“Eight o’clock Gill, at the drop in centre, OK?” Mary asked her head cocked to one side and her eyes asking more than her words.
Gill stood making a decision.
“Yeah, chill out Mary. I can find my way, I promise. I’m nowhere near as fragile as you think! I will be fine.”
Mary laughed and held her hand up for a high five. As she reached the door she looked back, she too had made a decision.
“Come half an hour early and I will share a story with you, not Joshua’s but Peter’s. But if you come early, you promise that Peter’s story will represent all the boy’s stories equally, OK?”
“Thanks Mary, I really appreciate that and I will be there.” Gill smiles and makes to leave to go to her room. She turned back at the last moment and called out over her shoulder. “Oh and OK. I promise.”