In Tanzania, I learnt that the Haven of peace in Arabic means Dar es salaam. Driving through Dar es salaam with Rahab my friend, I imagined that a place called a haven must indeed have a coveted peace. More so, it will hold many foot prints of hope; hope from desperate people who have fled from everything unpleasant. For those whose dreams take long to come through here, I hoped that the beautiful beaches, the trees and all of nature’s beauty I see in this country will serve as a bed of solace.
In the rumbling belly of Dar es salaam, at the heart of this haven of peace, I and Rahab finally located E & D Vision Publishing house. I was meeting with the first feminist English novelist from Tanzania, Elieshi Lema. As we held hands and she says Karibu; welcome, I was carried away by her natural grace and the ambience around her. She was like the future I admired. Meeting this Kiswahili and English writer added more sweetness to my time in Tanzania. Considering her many works, I looked beyond Parched Earth as I was strongly drawn to her fiction novel and stories that focused on children. I must say that most of her work represents an embodiment of the linkages between fiction and development. Her partnership with the Children’s Book Project (CBP) Tanzania has helped promote the use of novel writing and publishing in English to encourage language skills for in-school youths.
Her novel In the Belly of Dar es salaam proved she was not neglecting the out-of-school youths either. Through the hour, we talked about governance, the strengths and weaknesses of the African continent, we reflected on feminism and the African woman but most of all, our discussions focused on her novel In the Belly of Dar es salaam. Confidently, she spoke about the life of street children in Tanzania, expressing the certainty of a writer who had passionately researched her work. This novel uses a female as the central character to questions the political rhetoric on the commitment to social-economic development of children in general.
Elieshi glowingly shares the character of Sara; an unconventional girl who we meet in the first page doing a boy’s work; climbing a hill burdened with the head of a slaughtered cow. Small rivulets of blood from the dead animal were dripping and drying on her face; so unconventional! With her young eye eaten up by Cataract and all other impending worries, Sara was flawed in looks but not in character. It is this charisma that followed her through her days in the street with other children, there she lived like a butterfly, freely flying and perching to enjoy life’s sweetness despite the pains.
Leaving Elieshi’s office, I continued reading through how Sara met Prospa, but I dropped the book when Sara changes her clothing in her mother’s death room, leaving an emphatic message for her grandmother before setting out to begin a life on the streets of Dar es salaam. I dropped the book with the assumption that I know what the rest of the stories will be, but practically, we do not know the reality of street children. Two days after meeting with Elieshi, I was attacked by a gang of robbers led by a street child in Kampala,Uganda. With the painful loss of my mobile phone; I was provoked to learn more about this child who was party to those that robbed me.
Vagabond! Waif! Bastards! Urchin! Hooligans! Destitute! Ragamuffin! Guttersnipe!
Their names are so many, but yet we know very little about them. The pain and trauma I felt for my lost phone gave me the energy to further research on this isolated group of children whom despite our ignorance has remained an integral part of our world. Voraciously, I now read through all the pages of In the Belly of Dar es salaam to soothe my grief. I followed the story of Sara as she progressed on the streets of Dar es salaam, her paths meeting and parting with other street-children Mansa, Caleb, Ali among other gang members whom she became Maza; a mother to. For all the children, life in the street was triggered by the need to survive and not adventure. The novel expounded on the triggers of migrant street-children from the rural areas to the urban city. Under pressure from a society that does not appreciate that the hoe and the pen are miles apart, most young children believe that their answers lies in the belly of the urban city.In their hearts, the grass was greener in the city because those who left for the city never came back. So as schools, teachers and families pour them out like a river lets water go, then like tributaries; they flow into the belly of the city. The city thus embraces and nestles them into its rumbling belly.
Life in the streets of a city called the haven of peace is not what they expected. Here, their plight seems unchanging; they become more voiceless and vulnerable. Over time, their young hearts begins to know the city geography. They walk about, each with a stomach to feed, yet leftovers will remain their buffet. Holding their possession in cellophane bags, street-children often find shelter in abandoned cars, dilapidated rooms, and uncompleted houses. For them, anywhere their body can be stretched until daylight dispels the night is home. And ‘if they felt too tired during the day time, they lay somewhere on the side-walk or in the public gardens… their possessions beside their tired bodies’. Hardship tints their age and hard work hardens their hands. For the tainted ones who have lost patience like the character of Ali, the night is their mask; when the city sleeps, they prowl in its darkness looking for what to steal. The street has finally groomed their hearts tobe ruthless.
According to my colleague Akansha Yadav, street kids are those ‘children out of school, working in horrible conditions with no bargaining power, underpaid and malnourished. Some of us see them as cheap labour and some see them as not our responsibilities but a product of failed parenting, social structures and poor public education system. Admittedly, we have grown immune to the image of them given how pervasive they are and despite the shocking nature of this reality; it does not seem to assault our senses anymore.’ These street-children, do they really strike us? Can we hold them in honour? In the thought lines of Uwem Akpan’s An Ex-mas gift, can you dare say you are one of them? Can we dare say they are one of us?
In the Belly of Dar es salaam, the character of Safina and Belinda whom were born in the street and fathered by nameless men established the fact that street children reproduce themselves making their street life become trans-generational. Over centuries now, street-children have existed in fiction novels also. Horatio Alger, a 19th century prolific author was famous for his novels following the grass to grace adventures of impoverished children. His novel Tattered Tom; or, The Story of a Street Arab (1871) remarkably projects this age long phenomenon and even now, it raises the question of the possibility of extinction of children from the streets.
Yet while they grace the streets, these children continue to question their realities, they are not dumb. The character of Caleb reflects on the disparity in urban and rural development; ‘my father has been growing cashew nuts all his life, he does not know the kibaha cashew factory or who decides the price, why was the factory not built in my village where I could seek employment’? Sara asked, ‘was Kigogo immune to beauty…do you think poverty can be completely eliminated?’ Through their banter, they explore intra-household dynamics, the gaps between them and the rich minister’s children. And what answers do we think there is for these questions? Ramifications of iniquity seldom are resolved with violence, will their answers rupture them and result in an unruly political revolution?
Perhaps development organisations understand that nature’s providence is certainly a chameleon, hence what is good for the goose; the gander might one day have too. Better than the clean-up squads most governments set up to violate street-children, much more has been done to manage them around the world but little is done to eliminate the phenomenon. The International day for Street Children celebrated in over 130 countries brings a global dimension to reminding the world that street children are also covered by the widely ratified United Nation’s Convention on the Right of the Child. Such progressive activities do not go to waste for Indeed street children have ambition to leave the street someday. Elieshi symbolizes this in the gift of a Pushcart Mansa gets from an adopted father, this triggered him to quit the streets and live more responsibly.
I remember living a day on the street in the city of Lagos as a 16year old girl; I was hungry, frightened and visibly lonely. I had a hateful frown for the world around me. Night came and with a fear for the dark, I was desperate for protection. Helplessly I crept into an abandoned car until morning came. I tasted the street for one night and it was clear I could never survive there. Harrowing as it is, this experience I had is but a tip of what street children like Sara and the one that stole from me knows. Perpetually they tumble into the swift current of the city, swinging on the back of its waves. With many rivers to cross for their survival, day after day, they try to tell us they are not invisible, that they too are one of us. ‘I am somebody’ they say. Do we hear them clear?
In the Belly of Dar es salaam written in simple language has successfully contextualised the pervasive phenomenon of the street-children, situating it in the gap between us and them. Between the street kid and us all there remains a social divide, they live on the fringes of our lives and thoughts. It is therefore with compassion at individual and communal level that we must connect with these children.I dare us to begin to think we are part of them; I dare us to say they are one of us…
To Elieshi, I say Asante; thank you for this simple but well written novel that aptly places the street-child phenomenon within the African context. To Rahab, Juliana and Innocent, I am grateful for the gift of this book.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye