“Peter’s story.” Mary sighs and slumps onto the bench seat next to me, she is holding a tatty exercise book and is gently caressing the cover lovingly.

“This is Peter’s story in Peter’s words, he would draw images to answer our questions about his home, that was six years ago when he could still remember and felt the motivation to share.” Mary was flicking through the pages of the exercise book giving Gill fleeting glimpses of crayoned images, some stark and brutal, others happy and sunny. “Nowadays Peter won’t look at the book let alone draw in it.” Mary suddenly stands and walks into the office her hands fluttering to her face, her breathing deep and ragged. Gill picks up the book and stares at the first page, a huge sun, the age old child’s image of a house, same the world over it seems, and a family, clearly Mum, Dad and a little girl.

“Peter was happy at home?” Gill’s question greets Mary as she returns and she silently acknowledges Mary’s unexpected show of emotion, clasping her hand in hers and giving it a squeeze as she sits back down.

“Yeah, Peter lived in a remote farm outside Dar es Salaam. He had two older brothers both of whom had left to work in the diamond mines, neither returned home to help their parents. His sister, Habiba,” Mary points to the girl and looks Gill in the eye. “That means loved by the way. Was two years younger than Peter and his best friend in the world.”

The two women sat at the bench in the quiet of the morning, as the boys arrived they looked in and offered their respects then left the women alone as they went to the back to start the process of getting clean for the first time this week.

Peter and Habiba had attended the local primary school although Peter remembers wearing his older brother’s trousers which were too big for him and he had to keep hitching them up. The farm his parent’s owned was struggling. Peter’s father met a business man who offered to buy several hectares of land for what was later to be discovered half its value. The deal depended on Peter’s father then paying a rent to work the land he had sold and an agreement to sell the produce to the businessman at an agreed very low price. Neighbours had supplied the details of the deal and all agreed Peter’s father, a good, honest, hardworking farmer had been completely duped by the slick words and fancy car of the businessman. He had brought the family gifts and presented himself as a friend. Once the deal was done he reverted to his true colours and even took back the gifts he had brought.

Mary had turned the page and here was an angry image. Reds and blacks dominated the page and the image showed a huge man with a scary face grabbing at a doll the young Habiba was trying to hold onto. It was clearly an unfair tug of war between an adult and child, there were tear drops flying from the girls face.

Habiba was pulled out of school first; she was needed to help with the chores as Peter’s father spent more and more time in the nearby town looking for extra work.

Peter’s uncle arrived at the farm with his wife and their three children. They were victims of a large corporate land deal which is widely publicised as having forcibly evicted over 200,000 people from their homes. This put further stress on the struggling farm, it was now supporting eleven people as Peter’s grandparents were already part of the family unit.

Peter’s father and uncle left for the mines. It was the only choice. The image here shows Peter and Habiba holding hands with their Mother as they waved goodbye and balloons from their mouths called out their farewells. There was no sun in that image.

Life quickly changed, Peter was pulled out of school to work the land three days a week. Months later at harvest time his father returned, clearly unwell but home to help with the harvest none the less. The image now showed Peter’s father bent over and his face bore the crude slashes of a child’s image of pain, Peter’s mother’s face had lost its sunny smile but not Habiba, she alone was smiling.

Mary continued with the tale of Peter’s father’s death at the mine soon after his return to help with the harvest. The news had taken two weeks to reach the family. Tanzanian inheritance laws and family ties quickly dominated the story and Mary explained this information had been gathered many years later when they had first met Peter and had travelled with him back to his home.

Peter’s uncle returned to the farm and claimed it and Peter’s mother as his own. He demanded Peter’s mother take him as her husband and relinquish rights to the farm with his own first born boy taking preference over Peter. Peter’s mother refused and tried to hold onto her self-respect and home.

“This next is the start of the end for Peter and so many kids like him. Remember Gill this is every street kid’s story.” Mary smiled ruefully. “Peter said that you know?” her head cocked to one side and her eyes glazed with the memory. “Yeah, back when he still dreamed, he told me one day, that when he was a doctor he would find the words to match the pictures and give the story to everyone he could find that was driving a flash car and wearing a shiny suit, so that they would know what they had done.”

Mary sighed and stretched a she continued.

“When I asked him what he hoped the men in the flash cars would do with his story, he said simply, stop doing it. He told me that they had done this to every single boy on the street, he said the men in the flash cars and shiny suits hadn’t just destroyed his father but every street kid’s father.”

The next picture took up a double page and was penned starkly in varying degrees of harsh blackness created solely with a black colouring pencil.

It showed Peter with his backpack being pulled from his back and the school books thrown around the farm with pages fluttering in the air. Peter with his hands held out, palms up, empty, a clear gesture of showing he had nothing. Mary pointed to Peter’s trousers, hanging loosely round the tiny stick frame, the pockets were turned out. The picture showed Habiba, small and crying now, her face turned into her mother’s skirts and the super-sized tear drops flying all around. Peter’s mother was bent over and old looking. Peter’s uncle, the one demanding money and grabbing at the backpack was a frenzied image of blackness with stick legs and arms identifying it as a man. The hands on the stick arms were huge and evoked images of violence in the two women’s minds. The face was indistinguishable except for the two eyes, glinting with evil intent from within the blackness.

Peter had been chased off the farm and made for the nearest town, lost and lonely. He had quickly found refuge with a couple of street kids who recognised him as fresh on the streets and befriended him hoping he would have access to money or something they could sell. In the end it had been his brother’s hand me down trainers that bought his inclusion into the night spots and allowed him to take his first sniff of glue.

Mary explained that Peter wouldn’t talk much about the early times on the streets, except to tell of his sneak visits home to see Habiba, they met on the outskirts of the farm’s territory where the now abandoned and cowless cowshed sat. She would sneak out bread from her own meagre rations and they always shared this together. The images portrayed of these trysts always had a huge sun and many colours, Habiba was always smiling.

Habiba never told Peter of their mother’s sadness or the escalating violence she faced or if she did Peter never told the Social Worker’s.

“His relationship with his mother had been an intense and loving one and when he was forced to leave it must have torn him apart but he wouldn’t talk of this.” Mary explained. “He must have known that his mother was now being labelled as a witch and accused of killing his father by giving him HIV. This would have been common talk on the street, but he never refers to it.”

Suddenly the image on the page shows a family reunited, Gill gasps, hey a happy ending she thinks fleetingly before the reality of the case hit her. A happy, sunny page, again double sides of the book, Mum, Peter and Habiba walking together along a road leading to …

The three figures have their back to Gill and Mary but Habiba’s head is turned and they can see the start of a big smile. The road they travel disappears into a happy distance or so it seems.

“The yellow brick road,” Gill muses. “Never mind Mary, so what has happened? Where are they going?”

Mary filled in the gaps: they were headed for Dar es Salaam. Peter’s mother was in fear for her safety and felt the only choice was to leave and seek a new life for her and her kids in Dar. She had a cousin who was there and she hoped the rough address she had would be enough.

The cousin was located and took the tired, hungry, trio in. Habiba was quickly put to work, Peter’s mother shown how to scrape together a few meagre shillings working long hours as a street vendor selling fish and Peter was ignored. A rent for one room in the house was agreed and their new life began.

Peter quickly found the street boys in Dar, or maybe they found him, Mary had explained.

“From here Gill, I will tell you Peter’s mother’s story, all the mother’s stories are not so fortunate many of the boys mothers were born on the streets themselves. But it is Peter’s mother’s story as we now know it that set Peter off on the long journey from Dar es Salaam to Arusha. He came looking for us.” Mary continued the story.

Peter’s mother could not survive on the meagre income from selling fish. Her friends had told of her accepting offers of help from several men, but always on a business level. Her friend explained these relationships as having been Peter’s mother small business and that she had accepted the fact that sometimes she was beaten and unpaid as a hazard of that business. Apparently she tried to select just three men but that had been hard as, her friend had told us, men are unreliable. Eventually Peter’s mother decided to move downtown where the choice of “boyfriends” may be better and it would eliminate her having to travel. She had formed a friendship with another woman and negotiated a deal to share her house. In reality she stopped her street vendor work and the boyfriend business grew. She became sick quickly.

Mary turned the pages of the book and there was a crude bed, a prone figure being fed from a spoon by Peter and Habiba looking on, her smile faint.

“So Peter was still living with his mother?” Gill asked.

“Sometimes, it depended. Often his mother’s friend would chase him off telling him to bring money or food or both. He was forming close alliances on the streets and we suspect it was around this time he became initiated into one of the hard core street gangs.”

“Initiated?” Gill asked.

Mary sighed and looked around wistfully.

“Another time Gill, Peter’s mother for now.” Mary left Gill to her own sad conclusions and continued the tragic tale that was so familiar to her.

As his mother’s health deteriorated so the need for money increased. Peter brought home money but never said how. His mother’s friend took charge of every shilling and Peter and Habiba were left trying to care for their mother. They were both at her bedside when she died.

Surprisingly to Gill, when Mary turned the page, it was not a black and brutal image but rather a subdued and yet colourful one. It showed another farewell in Peter’s life and Gill suddenly remembered that Peter had been no more than eight at this time.

“Peter left?” Gill asked incredulously.

“One of the boys on the streets had told a story of his brother’s friend who had hidden in the back of a truck heading out of Dar and en-route for Arusha. This boy, so the story went, was picked up in Arusha by white mzungu’s and taken to a children’s home where he was fed, washed and sent to school. The story goes on to depict this boy as now being a successful business man and driving a big car.” Mary smiled.

“This boy came to you?” Gill said excitedly her longing for happy endings alive again.

“We don’t even know if the story were true or not but the point is Peter believed it. He knew his sister could not join him on the streets and he wanted to find a home for her. He was content to return to Dar or settle in Arusha and live on the streets as long as these fabled Mzungu’s, who were clearly volunteers like you, would look after Habiba.” Mary looked at her watch and closed the book.

“That is how we first met Peter, all of six years ago. A small, determined boy who cared for nothing but his best friend in the world, Habiba his sister.” Mary stood and placed the book on the end of the bench. “Maybe Peter will look at it today and tell us both some more of his story.”

Gill didn’t think Mary believed her own words one little bit and she remained as Mary left to check on the boys. Now she lovingly caressed the cover of the tatty exercise book that symbolised every one of the boy’s stories.

***

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11 thoughts on “Peter’s Story

  1. Having read (and still reading) quite a few books by African authors (sourced through a Worldreader promo my blog was involved with) I know that this story is an accurate reflection of real life for many Africans, even today in the 21st Century.
    Keep up the writing Gill, you have the gift to make words real 🙂

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  2. Gripping story. The man in the suit is very symbolic of how the governments of these countries are letting the people down and take advantage of their deprived circumstances. This story makes it all the more real.

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  3. It’s very striking the way the story is told with the illustrations from the notebook. A child has such a unique way of telling these things and often, as adults, it’s an effective exercise to explore our own feelings in this way. The scenario of Peter’s father losing out on his land and produce to the canny businessman is a sad story that seems quite alien in modern times. Probably it happens far more frequently in the Third World than we’d care to realise. Thanks again for the reality check.

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