Susan is 22 and has an awkward smile. Nevertheless, it is a contagious smile. Something about her has a light of happiness. When I met her, I watched her interact with some of the other children and youth who were around us and got the idea that Susan was a bit of a joker. When I started asking some of the children questions, she was eager to also be asked. She squeezed her way onto the bench right next to me, even cutting off the translator. Her persistence made me laugh. So, I asked her some questions.
She began by telling me about her long-lived toothache (perhaps the cause of the crooked smile). That afternoon, she had an appointment to have the tooth pulled at a free healthcare clinic in the area (perhaps the cause of the smile in general).
From the tooth, we went on to more serious matters. I found out that she came to the streets of Nairobi when she was 15. By this time, I had heard a few people tell me why they came to the streets and I realized that somebody who lives on the streets often recites how they got there. They tell the story with the ease that only comes with repetition. I wonder if they sit together at nights around fires in alleyways and try to one up each other with their stories. They tell it the same way anybody tells about a hallmark moment in their life; like going through a bad breakup or having your first run-in with the law.
Susan’s story is about a grandmother who accused her of stealing and then arranged for the neighbors to beat her as punishment. Susan didn’t like it, so she ran away.
Susan has now lived on the streets for seven years and the grandmother is nothing more than a distant memory. In that time she has had two children. The first child is deceased. After a few months, the child’s stomach swelled and Susan took him to the hospital. There, the baby died.
I asked about the other child and she immediately stood up, went behind a few onlookers, and retrieved a 4 ½ year old boy from playing in the dirt. She brought him back to the bench and introduced me to James, a small boy burying his head in his mother’s chest. He was incredibly shy and may have also been a bit scared by the whiteness of my skin.
Raising a baby is a challenge for anyone, especially a mother with no education living in poverty. But, there is an ironic advantage to having a baby on the streets. They are good for begging. I’ve seen several girls begging in the streets while holding a baby. I have a friend who pointed me to an article in the New Yorker about a family living in Kibera. The family made their greatest income from begging. Each member of the family would take a turn spending a day with the baby on their hip while asking for coins in the Nairobi city center. Babies gain sympathies that translate into greater donations. Together, Susan and James make enough money from begging to rent a one room shack in the slum of Milongo Kubwa. Susan speaks of begging as if it is a nine to five job. It isn’t a last resort; it’s an income generating activity.
Susan doesn’t want to spend her life begging. Her greatest hope for her future is to take a sewing course. She wants to be a dressmaker. I’ve met several other children from the streets who have been enrolled in similar courses as a part of Undugu’s Informal Skills Program. It’s a possibility for Susan. Such an opportunity would mean a steady income and a new world of opportunity for her son. Someday, there could be a small seamstress shop in Nairobi with a woman peering around a sewing machine with an odd but flattering smile; a smile that says something about mischievousness, laughter, motherhood, and accomplishment. “I made it,” the smile will say.
Posted By Jonathan Homer
Posted Aug 11th, 2007