Give Me Five Shillings

A story of the origins of Expanding Opportunities and a peek into the life of Street Children in Kenya.

Street Child Begging

Street Child Begging

The ragged dirty boy held out his hand. My heart tried to ignore him. But there he was standing in front of me. I shake my head and move on, a bundle of mixed emotions.

I didn’t have any change but that wasn’t the real reason. We were told not to give them money. They would only go buy glue to sniff.

“Jambo, Mama”.

Another, this one even younger. I don’t think he has ever had a pair of shoes. There are so many. This is horrible. How could I ever be fair? What on earth can I do?

I move on. Shaken and confused I move on. In my pensive wandering several more hands shoot out in front of me. Younger, older, aggressive, shy. Finally back in my room I wonder and pray. I resolve to try to have bread, fruit, or snacks in my bag when I go to town. Any that cross my path will at least receive something.

How did this happen? How could so many children end up wandering the streets aimlessly searching for something to eat? Living with no hope, love or security. I know they find and follow me because I am white; I must be European or American.

A trash heap is home

A trash heap is home

An American, in their mind is rich beyond imagination. Never had I thought so much about my color. Never before was my nationality more than a box on a form.

I turn to my African colleagues, “Where do they sleep?”

“Under a bush, behind the shops, a few have very poor homes.”

“What happens when they get sick?”

The response comes in a resigned tone, “Well…, they die.”

That hit hard. Such a matter of fact statement silenced me, they die.

My mind saw a small 8-year-old form curled tight under a pruned and ragged bougainvillea in the far corner of the park, shivering and sweating with the fever of malaria. Cold, alone, crying silently and wondering, “Where is God in this World? Does He even care about me?” Finally he closes his eyes and with one last lonely shudder finds his answer as he leaves this world.

“But what can we do Madam? We struggle to feed our own.”

My face had betrayed me. My silence spoke loudly to my African colleagues.

Unable to comprehend the scope of the problem; unable to untangle the complex political and cultural web that created this horror, I soothed my conscience buying loaves of bread and filling dirty hungry hands with slices. Children would multiply before my eyes. Some silent signal would call them as I opened a loaf of bread. Where there was one pleading child, now there were 10.

Time moved on. Soon my tenure in Kenya would be over. I would return to my life, my desk, my home, my town. My strolls through town would be solitary, anonymous, unnoticed.

“Chumindet” – (white person in a local mother tongue) – barely a whisper.

What does that boy have? There he was, so young, he couldn’t be more than 6 years old.

“Ndege shilingi tano” – Bird – five shillings.

Oh, he had caught a wagtail, a sweet little wren like bird common to the city park. He wants me to buy the bird.

I honor his entrepreneurial spirit yet respond. “Sitaki, asante.” I don’t want it, thank you.

We, my young son and I, move on, yet he follows. We were on our way to lunch at our favorite restaurant. It was a small local place, upstairs overlooking the park with a pleasant, friendly waiter and great fried chicken.

We settle down to our lunch and look out over the park. There he was, no bird, but his bird like pleading eyes look up at us from the park’s burning trash pit.

Street Child

Street Child

How am I to eat?

We order an extra Chicken and Chips and try to eat our lunch. When emerging from the small alley like door, there he was. I fought my desire to wrap him up and take him home like a little stray puppy. A bath, a good meal, some clothes and off to school, surely he should have at least that much. He ran off with his lunch and disappeared. We continued our shopping in peace.

Peppers and bananas in this stall, milk and eggs over here, the only place to get cheese is on the other side of town. Staples and water here, the cheese is on the way home.

The silent grocery list is interrupted, “Mama”.

Oh here he is again. What is he carrying this time?

Many street children sniff glue to get high.

Many street children sniff glue to get high.

“Lete hapa kijana.” He hands the little plastic jar to me. GLUE.

My fury rose! GLUE!!

“Mbaya sana!” My rudimentary Swahili failed me. How can I tell him it kills his brain cells? How can I say it is highly addictive? How can I say you are too young and precious to do this to yourself? He wouldn’t understand even if I did say it in his mother tongue. His now dilated pupils were still pools of haunting hopeful pleading. What did he want from me?

I kept his glue to destroy it later. I turned to the staring crowd. Someone offered, “Oh give him five shillings.”

I turned my fury on the crowd.

“Why? So he can go buy glue? The glue that you allow him access to? The glue that you sell to him? This child will grow with nothing but mush for brains. He is your future. When you are old he and others like him will not be able to care for you. They are your future leaders. Who will run your country?”

This Mzungu (white person) was the entertainment. In a country where emotional control is revered, I had lost it. I destroyed the glue and went home to cry.

Later, as I recounted the story to a friend, her words never left me.

“Do you know why they use the glue? I wanted to start a tirade of drug addiction but held my tongue. “It cuts the hunger. It dulls the misery.”

Then it hit me. What I had tried so hard to avoid. I can never go home and be the same. No matter what the reason, no matter why the children are there, no child should have to live on the street, begging for scraps of food, fighting the bites of lice and mosquitoes, Hiding to avoid beatings while restlessly spending a shivering night. What hope do they really have? A five-shilling piece will buy ¼ of a loaf of white bread or a small bottle of glue. The bread fills your stomach for a moment only dampening the screaming hunger. The glue satisfies hunger, cold, heartache and hopelessness.

But there are so many of them and only one of me! I can’t feed the world! I can hardly feed my own. What can I do?

You can help:

The answer was always in front of me. I am not asked to save the world, I am not asked to feed all the children. I am asked only to help with the few in front of me. The answer was already prepared before I knew. A father of one of my students, an honest man, had a heart for the children and had been feeding a few from his own small food stores. He agreed to accept my small monthly contribution and feed the children when I returned to the USA.

That is how it began. Unveiled day by day, I see the answer to that child’s request. “Where is God in this world?” God is working through His people. It is the people’s work to be a channel of His love. Some are to work on the political scenario to change the causes of such horrors. Some are to live in an affluent nation and be financially blessed so they may bless others financially. Some are to distribute the financial blessings. Some are to pull the child from the bush, hold him in warm loving arms and change his life. We are not asked to do it all. We are only asked to do what is placed in front of us.

That is where God is in the world. In His people, doing the work through them. That is where our joy and peace is. If we refuse we lose.

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