Nairobi is a city filled with flamboyant buildings that tower over each other as they break the monotony of the clear blue skies. However, Nairobi is also cultivated by a plethora of young and able children traversing aimlessly through this exuberance. This is the story of one of those children.
He has no name. At least to you, he has no name. He is simply a young boy with grubby hands, a snotty nose, tattered clothes and unkempt hair. He is one of the many faceless children that roam the streets. There are so many of them. If he hadn’t stood as long as he did at my window, I probably would have ignored him, like I often ignored the others.
Something, however, stood out about this particular nameless, faceless, annoying brat and so, despite the scorching noon sun searing through my open window, as I waited amidst the noisy, traffic-stricken Uhuru Highway, I avoided the urge to close my window, turn on my air conditioner and completely disregard him. Instead, I turned to face this dirty little boy and, for reasons I am still unaware of, I asked him to follow my car as I parked it in a side street. I am not sure why he followed me into the side street. Most of the others would have considered my request a waste of valuable begging time. Perhaps though, the same spell of curiosity that had ensnared me, had also ensnared him. So we sat, in the noon sun, on a side street, engulfing wafts of exhaust fumes from passing cars, as he began to tell me his story.
He said his name was Kagai. His mother, Mama, as he referred to her, used to call him Kale. He had no idea why she called him Kale. He did not even know his father’s name and actually admitted that it was not until his fifth birthday that he discovered everyone had both a father and a mother.
He began, eagerly reminiscing; meanwhile, I sat dumbfounded, barely listening to him, as I attempted to swallow the ironic fact that his mother may have maliciously chosen a nickname which, in Hindi, could be derogatorily used to mean ‘nigger’.
As I came to, I realised he was describing his fifth birthday... He had been asked by his teacher, whom, it was clear from his disgusted facial expression, he disliked severely, to come into to school with his parents. Obviously, when he had appeared with neither parent the next day, his teacher had not hesitated to verbally abuse him. Apparently, she said he was unable to do anything right. Kagai said that he had attempted to explain that Mama was working and was unable to come, but before he could complete his sentence, she rudely demanded why his father had not accompanied him to school instead. Unfortunately for Kagai, in her impatience, she had assumed his candid admittance to not having a father to be a display of insolence. This assumption had driven her ferociously angry, leading to the prompt dismissal of Kagai from her class, as his classmates had howled at his naivety.
Disturbed by the events of that afternoon, upon returning home, Kagai had questioned Mama about his father. He did not know that she would have been extremely unhappy with his questions, nor does he still understand why she had been unhappy. Ordinarily, he was used to being a disappointment to her and so, he was also used to receiving a few beatings. He said he knew he was an ugly child. He also knew he would never be successful, unlike his brother or sister. For a moment he was silent and stared into the distance, then, all of a sudden, he told me he could still hear Mama cackle as she warned him that a cripple can never be successful. His voice was soft and painful, depicting the shame he felt as a result of his disability.
I was barely able to share any words of sympathy to him, when he began recounting the punishment she had bestowed on him that night. Apparently, he said, a new rule had been passed that night – cripples did not deserve food.
At this juncture in his story, we both fell silent. I was incapable of looking at him, becoming increasingly ashamed of the relative affluence in which I had been raised. On the other hand, the silence, almost mistakable for mourning, was, at least on my part, undeniably the silence of seething anger.
Kagai’s voice rescued me from the budding hostile environment growing within me, as he began to recount a new memory to me.
When he was 8 years old or there about, he had returned home early from school. He had been excited because he would have been able to play football before Mama returned home from work. Happily, he and Mwangi (his best friend back then) had kicked the new ball, recently made from meticulously wrapped plastic bags found from a nearby garbage site, through the slum alleys, towards home. Kagai, still visibly proud of their ball, told me he knew the rules. So, despite the glee of anticipated playtime, Kagai had to rush home and change out of his school clothes, or else, he timidly confessed, if he got them dirty, Mama would have been extremely unhappy. He definitely had not wanted to be punished by her.
He said, just as he and Mwangi had been nearing Kagai’s home, they suddenly heard his name being yelled. “Kale! Kale!” He had looked up to see Mama standing in the door way of their one room home. “Kuja hapo!” His mother had shrieked, beckoning him in Swahili to go to her. He had approached nervously, afraid, as she had caught him kicking the football. Mama, he explained to me, had not liked him playing football. She used to say he could not play because he was a cripple; however he still did not understand why she used to say this. He was really good at football, he said. Admittedly, he was slower, but that was only because of his crutches, he said, looking vehemently down at them.
Mama had grabbed his arm, pulled him into the house and beat him. First she slapped him, then she punched him and then, eventually, she caught hold of a rungu and cruelly battered him with it. She was wild, he said. She did not stopped, even when he had begged to know what he had done to upset her, even when he had apologised, even when he had cried out in pain. She continued to beat him. At some point, in the midst of the frenzy, he had noticed his blood spraying on her clothes. Mama, he said, had also noticed his blood on her clothes. That made her even more irate. She began to yell at him for dirtying her clothes and then began beating him all over again.
Kagai was shaking his head, almost tearing up. I, on the other hand, was unable to prevent my hushed tears, now flowing in a continuous stream.
When he was done pulling and tugging at his tattered clothes showing me the purple bruises that had permanently marked him, he continued to describe that horrific beating.
At some point, he said, he had noticed his brother in the far corner of the room, crouched on the floor with his sister. He whispered to me that he can just about remember the fear he saw on his brother’s face that day.
I was still stomaching the whole episode, when he casually remarked that Mama eventually stopped. He does not exactly remember when. All he remembers is that it was dark outside and as soon as she stopped, Mama ran out of the house. That, Kagai said, was the very last time he saw her.
Kagai, obviously, unable to move due to the severity of his injuries, had waited with his siblings for her to return. They had waited for three days, but she never returned.
On the fourth day, they had been visited by the ‘Devil’. As the ‘Devil’, being the name Kagai had donned the frightening giant that came to their door that day, had yelled at them, Kagai said the sun had suddenly disappeared and night had fallen. The ‘Devil’, who, for three little children was more ominous than Mama, had not had to repeat his instructions. He had ordered them to immediately leave their home and they had unquestioningly obeyed.
Despite having not eaten for several days, with the little energy we had, they had gathered their tiny bodies out of their home as quickly as possible. His brother and sister, not crippled, unlike Kagai, had been able to get out faster and had soon disappeared in the alleys around their home. Kagai had attempted to follow them, but being tired, hungry and still nursing his injuries, he had been forced to give up and turn back towards their home, knowing no other place to go.
There, he had sat waiting nearby for two days hoping his siblings would return to find him, but, he dismally uttered to me, they had never returned. Eventually, he had been forced to leave his ‘spot’ to search for food. In the two days he had spent there, he had watched a new family move into his home, confirming his fears… He could never return home, because he had no home. That is how Kagai ended up living on the streets. That is how he became another invisible face sifting through garbage and sleeping in the dark and dusty alleys of Nairobi.
© Reena Shah 2009
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