“Nisaidie. Sitaki pesa. Nataka chakula.”
“Help me. I don’t want money. I want food.”
Sound familiar? If you live in Nairobi, it should. But you learn to shut it out. You master how to say ” Sio leo” or “Sina leo” without even thinking about it. Not today. I don’t have (anything) today.
I’m guilty of compartmentalization. Because I may not own a television, but the news gets to me eventually. I’ve watched the videos forwarded on Whatsapp. I log into Facebook every few days. I tweet. So I know that there is a whole lot of insincerity out there. But I have also seen things which cannot be faked. Missing limbs and malformed. A little girl, lying on the sidewalk next to a sleeping adult, doing her English homework. Festering wounds.
This little boy came up to me, while I was rushing home last night, and asked for help. I ignored him and crossed the road. Then I stopped and looked back at him. His request was rather specific. He wanted food, not money.
You know how we women say you can look at someone and sense that they have a “good heart”? That’s what I felt about this kid. I called out to him and asked him whether I should buy him bread. Then the dam broke.
I wasn’t sure that he knew what he was asking for so I asked again. Same answer. Flour. Maize flour, to be exact. I’m on a shoe string budget for the rest of the month – saving for something I’ve been dying to get for several months now – so I walk around with the exact amount of cash I need to spend in a day. I feel the need to point this out because I bought this kid flour and bread with points from my Uchumi card. It felt weird that I could afford to make purchases without money while a child had left his home in the early evening to beg for money for food on account of his mother’s illness.
He offered to fill me in on the details of his day without my asking. His mother was sick so she had missed work and could not afford to buy food for him and his siblings. Now that he had flour, he needed money for vegetables and charcoal.
I stopped to look at him. Because in my comfortable quarter life crisis, I have been fussing over not being able to bake and cook three dishes at once on a four burner cooker. I have felt more than a little embarrassed about only being able to use an oven when I visit my mother or house sit for friends when they are out of town. And in this bubble I created, it was time to move into a one-bedroom apartment/flat simply because I can and I want to and these are things that twenty-something year olds do when they can afford to.
Now, imagine being twelve and watching your mother struggle to make enough to keep you and your brothers and sisters fed. You still have homework and friends and football to think about. If I can fuss over an oven, a twelve year old boy can, and should, fuss over football like any other boy his age. And in my bubble, I had completely forgotten that people will still use a jiko to cook. Or a stove. I’m talking charcoal and kerosene. Now you see why my heart sunk. My bubble has allowed me to attend university and read on the effects of different types of fuels on health.
You read about poverty. If you live in a third world country, you see it. Then you get used to it. Then you create a bubble around yourself to compartmentalize issues. This bubble allows you to think, like so many of us have, that the problem is with the politicians. Or policy. In the bubble, even the poor are to blame because they have more children than they can afford to feed and clothe and put through school. The bubble allows you to sip a drink while a conversation about that cousin from shaggz getting pregnant a third time makes its rounds at the table. Or when the help refuses to write down what she needs to prepare your family’s meals because she cannot write or read. In the bubble, there are people who fail because they don’t try hard enough and/or they are not as gifted as you are.
Then you meet a boy who lives on the same Waiyaki Way you live along. He has dreams of making something of himself. He goes to school and has never taken drugs. His mother went to school and works hard to keep him home. She remembered to tell him to ask for food and not money. She told him to put on a sweater and check before crossing the road. You live in a thankless bubble until you meet a child who could have been your son or your nephew. Then your bubble bursts until his face and voice fade behind the many faces and voices asking for help on the streets of Nairobi.