It is 7:53 am and I just walked in the door to my house. I am tired, hungry, and dirty, but I have my priorities straight: after peeling off my jeans, I immediately opened my computer, started MS Word, and am now willing my grubby hands to type this. I need to reconstruct the events of the last 10 hours... I need to record the truth of last night before my heavy eyelids collapse and sleep steals away the grime I can still see - and the effortless laughter I can still hear - lurking behind this computer screen.
Recently Theo, the leader of Mkombozi’s Streetwork Team, invited any and all staff who were interested to join him in sleeping on the streets of Moshi last night. I was surprised, actually, that I was the only person not on the Streetwork Team to volunteer. After all, it makes sense to me that in order to help our kids – in order to truly to enable them to move forward from a life on the streets – we have to really do our damndest to understand the reality of their day-to-day lives. Never really possible, of course, but I figured that at least I could try.
Before I tell this story, I want to discourage any unnecessary worrying. I had a great time – I never felt in danger last night (except for the snake incident, of course, but we’ll get to that), and I spent the night protectively surrounded by my co-workers Theo, Rey, and Dadi – all strong Tanzanian men. I wore jeans, a hoodie, and a woolen cap – some of the kids didn't even realize that I was a woman for the first 15 minutes they talked to me! I didn’t wear any jewelry, I didn’t carry a bag, and everything I brought with me - only my house key, my phone, and a “just in case” 10,000Tsh note - was stored safely in my bra.
We met up with Theo at 10pm at a local “cinema” – simply a storefront stocked with a TV, VCR, and a few rows of uncomfortable wooden benches. The owner charges people (mostly, from what I could see, drunk men and soccer-obsessed youths) a few hundred shillings to watch a movie or a sports match. He also, however, is a friend to the street kids of Moshi. He lets Theo use the storefront, when it is empty in the mornings, for brief lessons and check-in conversations with the boys. And he allows the kids to watch TV for free, or just chill outside, without harassing them.
After greeting him, we walked around the corner and briefly surveyed the place we would be sleeping that night. Just across the street from an outdoor clothing market (located only a 5 minute walk from the very centre of town), there is a storefront that is exactly the same as all of the other ones on the street – except for the pile of wooden pallets, cardboard strips, and gunny sacks out front that serve as beds for the mass of kids who Mama Azizi, the shop owner, allows to sleep there every night. Her place is just on a regular road in a poor part of town – not surprisingly, unlike the main streets in the tourist areas of Moshi, I noticed the road was littered with trash, rotting food, and various unidentifiable objects left behind from the day’s business. About 10 kids were playing cards on a stoop; after greeting them and Mama Azizi, we told them we would be back later to sleep.
Theo is the full-time street-worker at Mkombozi here in Moshi. He knows the hang-outs and the sleeping nooks, has heard most of the street gossip, and sometimes it seems like he knows every youth in town. As we walked, he explained to me that there used to be a decrepit guesthouse in the center of town where women would sell themselves at night – however, recently it had been shut down by the police. He had just found out, through his street sources, that a new “spot” had cropped up about a 10-minute walk away. Rumor had it that there were some really young girls – street kids – who work out of this new place. Theo’s idea was that we all head down to the brothel and have a leisurely soda while we observe the proceedings.
The “spot” was really intriguing – it was actually a few separate guesthouses spaced out along a long street. The guesthouses didn’t have any signs or names out front that would indicate anything about what their buildings contained. Regardless, they didn’t need any words – the guesthouses were conspicuous and quite clearly all owned by one person… because each building had huge (I’m talking 3 feet tall) red roses and pink carnations painted on the concrete walls to either side of the front doors. Not only that, they all had makeshift flowerpots made of old paint cans hanging from the rafters of the tin roofs! For a business that probably should be trying to stay under the radar, the garish decorations were surprising... and somehow disconcerting.
It didn’t take long for us to make our own conclusions about the place: it definitely seemed like the type of guesthouse where a man could get a room… and could easily find a “friend” to share that room with him if he liked. For eleven pm on a Monday night, there were too many people there – drunk men and large, loud women – for it to be anything else. We also noticed the long-haul trucks on the street, which indicated that the guesthouses are preferred by truckers (a ringing endorsement, of course). Its likely that at least most of the women we saw, although they might not call themselves prostitutes, are probably at times willing to sell themselves for money. The good news: we sat there for about an hour and did not see a single young girl. Maybe because it was almost midnight… but we were relieved either way.
We then walked a long route through a back part of town and down to the bus stand. It was a beautiful, haunting night – hundreds of sleeping birds filled the trees, hungry dogs roamed the streets, and anybody who passed us gave us a wide berth – logically nervous about 4 large hooded figures loping down the middle of the road. With my cap pulled low, hoodie up, and hands shoved in my jeans pocket, my gleaming white skin was well-hidden for just this once. We soon arrived at the bus stand and did a quick count – 12 kids sleeping on the concrete outside of stores on the north side… and another 10 youths hanging out, still awake, about 20 feet away. We were welcomed to their bench with jovial calls of “Teacha!”, which is the name that most everyone on the streets calls Theo.
About 5 of the guys hanging out were probably closer to my age than to that of a “street kid” – but they are still, clearly, homeless young people. We talked to them for a while as they grumbled about the new rule being enforced by police in the bus stand – if you are caught trying to sell anything (cookies, watches – even water), or trying to earn some money by carrying bus passengers’ bags, you are fined 20,000/= on the spot… or carted off to jail. Apparently the cops originally said that the new rule was just for the holiday period – I am not sure why – but anyway, the restriction hasn't been lifted yet. The prohibition has left probably hundreds of young people with no income and no way to buy themselves lunch or dinner most days of the week.
One uplifting thing about our chat with these older youths– it was literally less than two minutes into our conversation (I hadn’t even really introduced myself yet) when they pointed out two young boys on the fringes who were “wageni” – new kids. The older youths called the two boys over and kindly, but firmly, instructed them to talk with Theo. So, as he probably does every day when he is on the streets, Theo took a scared and tired boy by the hand and led him to a quiet stoop where he could introduce himself. They talked in muted voices for a few minutes – probably about where the kid came from, how long he has been here, and where he can find Theo in the future if he ever wants to talk. Theo thus began the purposefully slow process of gaining the trust of yet another kid who has been neglected or, very likely, abused by the grown-ups in his life.
Before we left, the youths told us about another 6 boys who were asleep in a grassy area about 150 feet from the stand. Apparently they always sleep there, together, so as to protect themselves from other roving youths. So that brought our informal count of full-time street-kids – before we had even left the bus stand – up to 28.
Around 1 am, we headed back to the stoop where we had begun the night’s journey. As we walked back, we checked under buses, inside boxes, and behind walls – we found a group of 4 boys sleeping, huddled together, behind a collapsed wooden road sign on the sidewalk on the main road through town. We found one other boy sleeping alone behind a low stone wall. These kids brought our count up to 33.
When we got back to Mama Azizi’s, there were about 6 boys still awake, gambling in a simple card game where the “ante” is a single coin that is the equivalent of less than a nickel. Of course, street gambling is illegal, but this wasn’t exactly serious stuff… so I threw a coin in and the boys shuffled over to make room. We ended up playing with them for over 2 hours. Counting the 6 boys who I was playing cards with, I knew that we were up to 39. Of course, I was also acutely aware of a small kid sleeping only about five feet away from me – and I knew that, if I were to just walk past that sentinel boy, I would find many more right there – huddled in the darkness against the walls and under the wooden pallets. I waited over an hour before venturing to look. I wasn’t ready for the count to get any higher just yet.
How can I describe what I saw when I finally went to “stretch my legs”? By this point in the night I was comfortable enough with the kids to closely study what I was seeing without any shame: Young boys – as young as 8, by my guess – huddled together on the pavement. Mostly wearing cut-off shorts and t-shirts. Almost all barefoot – if anything, just wearing rubber flip-flops. And here I was, ambivalent about the 3 am chill with my damned hoodie and sneakers and cap. Under one pallet, I might see only one boy sleeping alone – and then just past him, I’d find four kids all spooning in a row to keep warm. I can’t decide which sight was harder to stomach. Maybe half of the boys slept on top of cardboard pieces to keep out the chill of the concrete… and a few also had their legs wrapped up in gunny-sacks that they were using as makeshift sleeping bags. I counted about 15 boys lying on Mama Azizi’s stoop – it was hard to tell since they were so packed together – but our informal count of full-time street-kids on this Monday night thus shot up to 54.
I stayed up to play cards with the boys until about 4 am. At one point, a drunk man across the street got in a fight with a few guards who had been sleeping outside of the market. The kids playing cards with me briefly ran over to investigate, but they didn’t want to get involved. They came back and quickly started the game up again – obviously trying to distract me, their unexpected white guest, from the sight and sound of fully grown men kicking the shit out of somebody.
So there we were, playing cards under a harsh fluorescent porch light, laughing and trying to ignore the occasional distant thud of a well-landed blow. Suddenly one of the boys put his hand on my knee and whispered, slowly and shakily, SNAAAKEEE! I looked behind me and sure enough – 8 inches from my other knee – was a skinny, dark brown snake slithering along the wall. I edged away, cautiously at first, and then quickly jumped up and ran a few more feet. It wasn't actually a very big snake – probably less than 3 feet long. Very likely not dangerous at all. But who wants to take chances when there are 15 boys sleeping on that ground? One of the kids yelled for the guards – who were kind enough to stop fighting and to come running with their big sticks – to kill the snake. A few sharp cracks on the concrete were all it took – although every THWAP made me cringe at the incongruously harsh sound on this hushed stoop. Some kids jumped up out of their sleep, immediately awakened and on alert. Other boys barely even stirred.
A twelve-year-old boy named Musa had stubbed his toe in the excitement – after it was all over, he came back to the card game and calmly watched the blood pool into a bubble of burgundy on his toenail. It wasn’t a serious injury at all, but I couldn't help but picture my childhood – where a simple toe-stubbing meant a prompt washing with antibacterial soap, coating with ointment, bandaging, and probably even some Advil. Musa didn’t flinch – after all, here on the streets he doesn’t even have clean water available to rinse the dirt out with.
I retreated to the edge of the stoop and quietly reflected on the world I was in. It seems so fake to say that I was truly understanding this reality – secure with warm clothes, “emergency” money in my bra, and the knowledge that I would be back in my house the next night. And yet it was all so TRUE right then – the inescapable smell of feet, shit, urine... the sight of dirty coins under fluorescent light, grime on bare legs... the sound of cards flicking on cement, loud breathing from dark corners, dogs fighting in the distance... The feeling of cold pavement under my knees, dirt under my fingernails.
Theo hunkered down next to me on the stoop and started calmly narrating the story of his work on the streets. His passion was clear even at 4 am in the haunting fluorescence. I learned that he brings a bar of soap to work with him every day – if it's a hot day, he can easily convince the boys to come swimming with him down by the river. He bathes with them so that they don’t feel like he is any “different”. He told me that his greatest worry is that he will try to push his “solutions” onto the boys he meets rather than asking them for their ideas. He described a time that he gave six boys sweaters…which they promptly sold. He blamed himself – because he had never actually asked the kids what they needed. In retrospect, he said, the boys needed food more than they needed sweaters – and if he had only asked them, he would have known that. He will not push a kid who isn’t interested in leaving the streets – but if a boy seems curious, Theo will tell him how Mkombozi might be able to help.
I decided to try to sleep at around 4 am. I lay down near a huddled group of boys, about three feet away from them. After getting myself settled in on my side, with one arm propped under my neck, I glanced up from the concrete and was rattled by the vision immediately in front of my eyes: a boy, who couldn’t have been older than 9 years old, lying still on the ground. Wearing lightweight shorts, a soccer t-shirt, and nothing else. In the fetal position, his t-shirt pulled up over his chin. His bare head rested directly on the concrete. His hands, pressed together prayer-style, were shoved between his thighs to keep them warm. He looked cold, uncomfortable, exposed. And yet he appeared to be completely asleep – he didn’t re-adjust his position once for the 10 minutes that my eyes were locked (I couldn't seem to look away) on his face. He was the last thing I saw before I also slipped into sleep… and he was the first thing I saw when I was soon awakened by another boy nudging his friends, loudly announcing that 5 am had arrived. Most of the street boys in Moshi don’t beg for money (except maybe occasionally when they see tourists). Generally, the younger kids collect scrap metal (they sell it for about 20 cents per kilogram). Those boys have to get started early every morning before all the trash is gone or taken by others. The older kids, who carry packages and buckets of water for grown-ups, don't have to worry as much since their customers wont arrive too early in the morning.
After shaking the sleep off, we began our last mission of the night: a 10-year-old boy who had been sleeping with us, Imani, was quite sick with malaria. Theo had taken him to the hospital earlier on Monday – but as evening arrived, the boy had begun to be afraid of sleeping alone in the hospital. So he snuck out and ran back to his friends on the streets. Theo formulated a new plan: he found an older, bigger youth who was willing to keep Imani company in the ward. So we rounded up the two boys and escorted them to the hospital around 5:30 am. Just as it opened, we were settling Imani back into the same ward he was in yesterday – and convincing the nurses not to be too mad at him.
Mawenzi Hospital is a place where homeless kids can get some rest and respite away from the harshness of the streets. Of course… it is also a place that most Americans would walk into and then run out of in terror. It looks like purgatory – the ward we were in had two people to each bed (the person in the bed Imani was to share with was coughing all over the place and looked really sick). The mosquito netting is broken in every single window and there are discarded surgical gloves on the ground. The toilets are bare concrete, the bathroom floor is sloshing with water, and you can smell everything from the end of the ward. There were 15 beds along each side of the wall – therefore 30 beds total… and since they are two patients to each bed, I guess that means there were almost 60 patients in this one room (with only 2 nurses who looked tired, disinterested, or just really overworked). As is expected at a Tanzanian hospital, we were given a slip of paper to take to the pharmacy (outside and across the street from the hospital). There we had to buy the syringes and medicine that Imani would need to treat his malaria with quinine. As we waited for him to get his first injections, a woman walked down the aisle selling tea and porridge to the families who could afford it – in Tanzanian hospitals you either bring your own food, buy it from the woman walking down the aisle… or go hungry.
Around 7:30 am we decided to leave the boys in the competent hands of the nurses. We trudged to the bus stand and found a dala-dala back to our neighborhood. I made it safely home. I am about to take a hot shower, put on clean clothes, and climb into bed for a nap. None of these things are even remote possibilities on this day for any one of the 54 kids who I slept on the street with last night.
Count your blessings.