Beware of the bad-bad children who come in dirty-dirty clothing and inwardly are ravenous stealers. You will recognize them by their smells. Any of them that thieves is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their smells. Beware of the hooligans who roam our streets and our markets, for these sons are not come to save you. When you see them, look out for your purse. Is it behind or in front? If it’s behind, brother bring it in front, but if it’s in front, sister throw your eyes on them. Always make sure you can feel it when you walk, you can sense its delicate touch on your lap when it’s in your pocket. Then I heard a woman tell her child “I no ever wan see you with dat thief pikin.” All my life on the streets I was used to that. I was used to seeing people take precautions whenever they saw me approaching.
I was a homeless child for many years. It might be hard to believe but I felt at home on the streets. My two good-good friends made it possible. Together we found a house where we could sleep at night, tell stories and laugh among us. It was an uncompleted and abandoned building with crumbling walls and rusted zincs surrounded by a forest of grass. There was something sinister and ghostly about the environment, but together we were not the fear-fear children everyone thought we were, we felt stronger and secured. In our minds it was a villa, our Olympia.
I was the eldest among us. Then there was Nina who was just about a year younger than me, she was the last to join us. Nina was a beautiful young and reserved girl. She expressed herself on rare occasions, so there were a lot of things we ignored about her. She spoke sweet-sweet grammar and dressed well-well (at least when she was still a newcomer in the nasty environment). We always wondered what brought her to such a yeye life on the streets. The youngest was Columbus. I always thought he left his parents because they were wicked; only wicked parents could name a child like that. What on earth was Columbus? For such a mini child! I called him Coli, a name which reflected not only his tiny and short self with his small-small legs, but also his chatty and gabby nature. He made a lot of noise, but was the funniest amongst us all. He was always in a good mood despite our wretched conditions. Coli’s good mood was contagious and sometimes helped us cheer up. But when we walked during sun-scorched afternoons looking for what to eat while our bellies called on our ancestors, it was so annoying listening to his high-pitched fruity voice. For two years we lived and struggled together, we became more than friends, we were family.
One night, after hours of toil and miles of hike during the day, we got back home late and tired. It was a cheerful night as someone slept close to me. I held the person with a warm embrace. I guessed it was Nina from the breasts I could feel on my hands, holding them in my deep slumber. “When did Nina’s breasts become so big?” I asked myself. But I didn’t care; I was absorbed by the good feeling they procured. I clung to her the more, wrapping my legs on hers as I continued enjoying the five o’clock morning-sleep. A few hours later, the sun pierced through the broken glass of what was normally supposed to be a window, coming straight to my eyes. The breasts were still in the vice-like grip of my hands as I struggled to free my eyes from night’s slavery. Eyes open halfway, I saw Coli. He was already up and was looking at me strangely as if I had committed an abomination.
“Philo? Wake up quick-quick.” Coli said gently, which was unusual of him when I overslept. So I guessed something was wrong, but I was still hesitant especially in the pleasant warmth in which I found myself.
“Phillip! For God’s sake will you please wake up now?” Nina yelled. That was the problem. If Nina was up and yelling at me to wake up from bed, then whose breast was I clung to? On whose legs were my legs wrapped? With whom did I spend the pleasant night?
“It’s dead body… ya sleepy with oh!” Coli shouted and burst out laughing. I jumped out of the bed like a cricket before he had time to finish his sentence.
“Nina, I think it is you all night.” I said, still finding it difficult to breathe and to believe. What was annoying at that moment were Coli’s incessant mockeries.
“Hum!” Nina sighed “So you think you can comfortably hold me like that ein! You must be insane.” She removed her big-big grammar, sending a quick glance from my hair to the tip of my toe.
It was a cadaver of a young lady probably in her mid-twenties, her hair scattered, eyes wide open, and her lips already bluish. Her white shirt was stained with dry blood from her belly. The hole on her shirt, where the blood had emanated, was evidence that she died of a gunshot. Her body was probably brought to our place when we were out on our routine hustles in town. Discovering a dead body in our city was not something strange. It was gradually becoming a normal way of life since the beginning of the war of secession between pro-government forces and pro-independence fighters.
Coming across a dead body wasn’t the problem; the problem was sleeping with one, and that scared us. There was only one thing to do at that moment. I couldn’t picture Coli and I getting rid of a dead body, even though thinking about it was somehow funny, but we couldn’t take the risk because in such moments anyone accuses anyone to be free of their faults. We had to leave and look for a new settlement before nightfall. Thinking of leaving made us sad, especially when we thought we had found a place we could call home.
I wore a long t-shirt that looked like a gown on me as it hid the little short I had. Coli had a short shirt which exposed part of his stomach leaving his belly button outside. He had a pair of undersized trousers which made him look sexy, like a five-year old girl. Nina had an old women’s day kaba of nineteen ninety something years. We didn’t care, even our minds didn’t have the luxury to think about being fashionable. We were set to move. We would miss our rich neighbours, not that they were good to us or even cared, but at least we were privileged to sometimes have old shoes, clothes and left over food from their bins.
That morning, we stood by the road side and watched them go to school. We gazed with admiration and envy, but they looked at us with delightful disgust. “Come over here get in the car fast, you will kill me one day.” Mother neighbour shouted at her little girl who rushed towards us with a piece of bread. Now that I think of it, we stood there looking at them like zombies, lost in our desires to have what they had. The older kids, well dressed in their school uniforms, on getting into the car, sent a quick repellent look at us. One of them removed a book from his bag and held it in his hand. Why would he do that? Probably to show us he was a serious boy, not of our kind.
“There are cumulus nimbus clouds, rain will probably fall soon.” One of the boys said looking at the sky then got into the car.
“Yes for sure.” His brother who was still lingering behind answered. Then they all got into the car. We all stood there silent, none of us moved an inch and no word was uttered for a few seconds. We were all in our imaginary dream world at that moment, and the silence was becoming embarrassing.
“Columbus bumbus clouds? Na weti?” Coli asked, breaking the silence.
“Ask me and I will tell you.” I responded. It was evident that that no rain would fall, it wasn’t even the rain season. They were just trying to show off some knowledge they had acquired in school.
We couldn’t move around the city looking for a place to sleep with empty stomachs. We needed money to buy something for breakfast. The most appropriate job in the morning was working at the car wash. We had the opportunity to wash taxis and the rich men’s cars before they got to work. Unfortunately for us, we were late, and the car wash was already full of cars and other washers. But we couldn’t leave our coming there be in vain. We usually took the opportunity of the abundant water at the car wash to take our bath. We did that in discrete manner. We would walk around claiming to be serious as if we were checking on something we lost, and then water will come from nowhere and splash on us.
One of our clients suddenly appeared and we rushed to get him before the other washers. We held his car as he drove, running slowly beside it as if we were presidential guards running beside the president’s car.
“I’m hurrying, so you wash this car very fast.” The old man said giving us the keys.
“Oga no worry, we go wash the Pajero now-now.” I told him.
“Now-now!” He mimicked, “If anything disappears from this car you will be penilized?” He said. Coli and Nina who were just right behind me began to chuckle. I didn’t understand why they were laughing until the old man insisted on his warning. “I say you will be penilized.” The man said. They all burst out laughing behind me, I forced myself not to laugh, and if I had laughed, we wouldn’t have had food that morning.
I began to wash the car and because we were late, there were not enough tools for Coli and Nina to give me a hand after they had finished dusting the car. Nina sat in the car; she found some papers and a pen. That was what she loved the most. For all the months we had known her, she had been secretive about her life, but when she had a pen and a paper in her hands she felt so accomplished, she expressed herself on those papers more than she did with her mouth. She was good at drawing; she could carve out someone’s portrait with striking resemblance. We knew less about her dreams and aspirations but we were sure it had something to do with drawing. Coli was seated on a stone doing his journalist thing. He was fond of taking any item he came in contact with for a microphone and acted as he was presenting news on TV. They had dreams and aspirations, but I didn’t know what I wanted in life. They at least had hopes and expected light at the end of the tunnel. I lived with the belief that my tunnel had been created to have no light; my mind was trained to never expect that light. I usually told them I wanted to be a medical doctor, but I myself didn’t believe in that, I just wanted to say something too. Pff medical doctor? Which kid doesn’t dream to be a medical doctor at least once?
“You will draw food and eat it this morning.” I told them.
“Ein! You want us to wash it with our tongues?” Coli asked, defending Nina as if she couldn’t speak for herself. He was what my mother used to call ‘the Devil’s advocate.’ He was right, they couldn’t do better, but it was annoying watching them do nothing while I did the work for us all.
After we were paid, we rushed to the puff puff stand where we had our breakfast. That is if eating at 11:30am is still breakfast. It was time for our long walk. We knew it wouldn’t be easy but we had to do it. It was almost noon; we walked around town in search of a place to spend the night. Most of the abandoned buildings we found were already occupied by other homeless kids and some big-big thugs. It was becoming a difficult business. There is no better real estate agent than a homeless child. To have the good buildings, you needed to spend too. Some of us became landlords of buildings that didn’t belong to us.
As we walked, we met a man; he was one of our faithful clients at the car wash. He stood by his car going through his Instagram. How do I know it was Instagram? I didn’t know then, but now I know. We got closer to him, to greet him. When people see children like us coming towards a man like him in the name of greeting, they will automatically think we want money from the man. Well let me tell you, if you think like that then I assure you it is the case. So, we rushed to greet him. Nina was a bit slow because of the blisters on the soles of her feet. “Good morning sir, good afternoon sir!” we greeted in great confusion. We hadn’t tallied our greetings on whether it was still morning or it was already afternoon. But it didn’t matter for he didn’t answer. He took his phone and pretended to make a call. He ignored us, pretending he couldn’t see us or hear us. He began whistling as he entered his car. We were so embarrassed to be there, but it seems he was more embarrassed, afraid to tarnish his image.
We continued our long journey down town. It was already afternoon and we had not found a place. The long unfruitful wandering had started draining us of our breakfast, hunger was at sight, but there was no money. That was how we lived; the money we earned was just enough for immediate consumption, so if we had to eat again, we had to work again. I decided we would walk towards the commercial avenue where it was easier to get some minor jobs with fast pay. We met Bob, a homeless kid who was mentally ill. “If you wise don go towards the avenue.” Bob warned widely opening his korokoro eyes.
“Why? What happened?” We asked in unison.
“One army is dead, his other friends came and they started shooting-shooting.” He replied and began to run as if a bullet would leave the commercial avenue to meet us where we were. Bob was insane but we had to take such warnings seriously. In order to eat we had to be alive. Where else could we get minor jobs with fast pay?
We stopped at a street where we saw a Chinese construction enterprise which was setting up water facilities. They needed man power to dig the holes needed to pass the water pipes underground. We accepted the job. I dug while Coli and Nina carried the ground in buckets. The strong-strong ground made the digging very difficult, and we spent more time than expected. There were two Chinese men discussing and laughing at Coli. The ground he carried got mixed with a bit of water and stained his dress, perfectly carving out his little ass, which he swung from left to right as he walked.
They began talking in Chinese, I couldn’t hear what they were saying but from the way they were looking at us they were probably saying “dirty children.” But they were not different from us; they looked so dirty that they didn’t have the same color as the Chinese we used to watch in Kung-Fu films. If they had not spoken their language, I wouldn’t have believed they were from China.
Almost three hours digging for a few coins. We were completely weighed down and there was no place around where we could get something to eat. So we continued on the road. We walked several metres, but there was still nothing to buy. We saw an abandoned building which we decided to check on. When we got inside there were big-big boys playing cards and smoking. We wanted to turn back when they called us and asked us to sit.
“You get money nar…give me, I will multiply it by ten and give you. I swear.” One of them said. Tempted by the idea of gaining much money, I told him I had money, even though Coli pinched me from the back. Yes I was stupid. What made me believe a player who was already out of the game could win such an amount? He lost the game. The money we worked for close to three hours was gone, and there was no food in our bellies. I was speechless. I could feel veins bulge out on my forehead.
“Why are you mad at me brother, take some cigarette and smoke well, it will calm you down.” The boy said.
“Give us our money!” Coli yelled with his sharp voice. The demand was futile but he had to say something. One of the boys who sat by Nina began to touch her in a strange way. She pushed his hand but he continued caressing her. Coli got up and scattered the boys’ cards and ran away. It was so fast that we didn’t even notice when we were out on the road running away from the thugs.
It was already evening and things weren’t getting better. We still had not found a place to sleep and our stomachs still grumbled like raging thunder. We walked silently; no one had the energy to utter a word. Even Coli was silent, we had never seen him so exhausted. A fairly strong wind would have probably blown us down at that moment. We continued our way through the food market. Going there wasn’t the best idea; getting to the food market with an empty stomach and no money was quite a temptation. I was so hungry that I salivated at the sight of raw food.
A woman who sold pots suddenly called asking for help. We had to help her carry her pots back in to her store. I knew what that implied; in fact I thought I knew. My pale face became radiant, my stomach chanted songs of hope, while my saliva wetted the tongue in preparation for degustation, for I expected at least remuneration of any kind after work. “Thank you my good friends, God almighty bless you plenty-plenty.” She said. Never in my life had I been so disappointed in hearing God’s name.
“So you expect a woman who sell pot to give you money ein!” Coli said, braving the hunger and fatigue to laugh.
“Why not? I asked, not understanding the point he was trying to make.
“Na who buy pot? So your mama use to buy pot every Friday ein.” He said sarcastically. I didn’t have time to think about that, my brain wasn’t ready for something that wouldn’t provide food. The woman had taken away the little energy that was left and had given nothing as compensation.
We continued wandering, even though the blisters on our feet slowed us down. At 6pm we went to a restaurant with the hope of finding left over food to eat. It was amazing how people had changed, they now finished their meals not thinking about those little kids who sometimes counted on them to leave a bit of food in the plates.
It was getting late; eating was out of the plan. What was urgent was finding a safe place to spend the night. The stars had begun to shine, the bikes and the cars in town had switched on their driving lamps. Without respecting traffic lights, the cars, the bikes, the pedestrians struggled to get to their homes. Since the beginning of the war no one stayed out after 8pm. We sat in a quiet place where we thought we could spend the night, attentively watching everyone rushing to get back home. The traffic jam became tangled and impassable. The cars’ horns produced deafening claxons while the taxi drivers and bike riders shouted at each other and exchanged perverse insults. They all wanted to get back to their homes before 8pm. I was indifferent to the scenes I watched, they at least had a place they were rushing to.
Nina sat down and hugged her knees shivering in the cold that came with the dark. Her mind seemed to be far away. I would have loved to know her better and understand why she was so quiet. Almost a year with us, all we knew about her was her love for drawing and her fear of darkness when she was alone. Coli and I lay on the pillars of the shop; his eyes were heavy with sleep. No one spoke; speaking would have drained us of the little energy which enabled us to stand on our feet. We were all almost falling asleep when the owner of the shop who on coming to sleep in his shop suddenly surprised us.
“What are you doing here you little thieves?!” He shouted.
“Please sir, allow us to sleep here, it’s cold and we have no place to go.” Nina pleaded.
“Do I look like the social service?” He asked. Nina’s pleading had gone in to deaf ears.
We were on the road again, not knowing where we were heading to. The noise from the traffic jam had faded away, the roads that were marked by urban sophistication during the day just melted into a rather aloof silence of a countryside. It was so dark that we just wandered not caring where we put our legs till we finally got to a place where we thought we could sleep.
Just when we thought we had found some peace, we heard the sound of car engines revving up, coming in our direction. Their driving lamps were so many and blinding. Then they suddenly began to shoot in the sky. I had never heard the sound of a gun so close to me. It was so terrifying that I had the impression my heart had stopped beating for a while. We were all panic-stricken, we all ran to the opposite direction when another group of armed men appeared and shot at those who had come before them. The lights of their cars made us visualize where we were and we instinctively ran behind a huge bin. The two camps were in a terrifying exchange of bullets. All we could hear were the gunshots and the clangs metals around. And all we could see were the sparks of lights produced as the bullets clashed.
Nina’s hands began to tingle in horror; she was traumatized by what was going on. We sat behind the bin closing our ears to the horrible noise, but Nina was out of control and kept on shouting-shouting. It was as if the gunshots reminded her of some sad experience, ripping her of all composure. I forcefully closed her mouth with my hands, I felt her facial muscles contract as she resisted. Coli remained silent, even too silent. He made no noise. The incident lasted for almost two hours, and then the armed groups fled in their various cars. We couldn’t distinguish which side had won the battle, we were busy striving to stay alive.
It was in the later part of the night that the moon appeared. Finally we could clearly see our faces. I thought everyone was alright till Nina felt something wet on her dress. She touched and discovered it was stained with blood. She felt no pain, so she knew the blood wasn’t hers. It was Coli’s. He was touched by a stray bullet on his left lap when we were seeking refuge behind the bin. He had already bled for too long, losing a lot of blood. Never in my life had I seen someone sweat so much and at the same time go through such prolonged shivers. I held him in my arms. Helpless! His eyes were becoming heavy. I tried talking to him to keep him up. I told him about how he would get to school soon, how he would become a great journalist, the best in the country. I assured him that we would soon see the light at the end of the tunnel. I told him how we would live all together in a great mansion. I said everything I could to keep him talking. And what was surprising was that I began to believe in what I was saying.
“We go get dog for the mansion?” He asked unexpectedly.
“Yes, if you wan.” I answered.
“No I no wan dog.” He said.
“Ok no dog. What do you want? I asked.
“Now I no even know what is paining me bad, or is the hunger or is the wound oh.” He said. We all laughed, laughing with tears rolling down cheeks. Coli was slowly getting to sleep. That explained why he moved illogically from one idea to the other.
“You know you ugly when you cry?” He asked Nina. She was helplessly shedding tears as she watched her good friend in such a state.
Coli had lost much-much blood and he was exhausted from the day’s walk and toil. it was difficult to keep him up for long. No matter how hard I tried to keep him up, his eyes succumbed to their own weight. I watched him fall asleep, not too sure I would still be with my friend the next day. When I woke up in the morning, I saw a paper on Coli’s chest. It was a drawing of Coli on which he held a microphone. Nina had perfectly drawn his tooth gap which gave him an amazingly charming smile, depicting his hope and everlasting good mood.
Nina was gone. I never saw her again.