Surviving on the streets of Mbale Town: Aggrey and Dennis

28 10 2012

In Kampala (where I live) and many other cities around the world many people don’t like the idea of giving a street child money/ food because apparently once you feed street children, thats an invitation for more children to occupy the streets. Now I wouldnt want to see any child on the streets, but then again I dont want to see a street child starving or dying of hunger.

To some of these children those streets are the “safest” place to live. Not by choice but because of the circumstances that you and I might never know/ understand.

Five days ago I arrived in Mbale from Soroti (both of which are districts in Eastern Uganda). For the first time I have got to spend a couple of nights in this town.

First I was not amused at how dirty Mbale town is especially since in the early/ mid 2000 Mbale was one of the cleanest towns in Uganda. Just before I could recover from the scene of dirty streets and huge potholes in the heart of the town I learned that these streets are a home to dozens of street children.

My colleagues and I had stopped to buy cooked maize and jack-fruit from street vendors in Mbale town when I notices 4 children who kept roaming the small stall to feast on jack-fruit fingers that have fallen down. The jack-fruit vendor is extremely careful, almost nothing falls down. To him every finger of jack-fruit has monetary value. He basically gives you not more than 10 fingers of jack-fruits for Ugx 500.

“Hello, do you want me to buy you some jack-fruit”? I asked one of the children. Yes he answered. In about 4 minutes or so I had bought jack-fruit for 4 children. Each of these children walked to me to say thank you before and after getting their jack-fruit from the vendor. For me, it was really surprising to find this much discipline on the streets.
I also offered two other boys an offer to choose between cooked maize and jack-fruit, they went for maize.

This evening my friend Mark and I left our hotel and went out to find some roasted chicken and rolex for our dinner. As we moved from one vendor to another comparing the size of the pieces of chicken (which were all relatively small for Ugx 3,000 by the way) I spotted two boys on a verandah just about 3 meters from where I was standing. I asked them to come to me and they did.

The boys’ names are Aggrey (12) and Dennis Stephen (who is guessing that he is 10). Aggrey appeared to be eating something, so I asked “what are you eating”? Fish bones he said, there is a man there who gave me the left-over bones.

Aggrey is a jolly boy, when you ask him a question he answers it straight away. You can tell from the way he looks and talks that he is an ambitious kid. Dennis on the other hand sounds a bit young and shy with a peaceful and kind look on his face – he never looked at me straight in the eyes when he was talking to me.

I asked Dennis and Aggrey whether they were hungry and they said yes, so I offered to buy them one chapati each. They agreed so we went to the vendor. Meanwhile the vendor had just sold out his first batch of chapati but he was rolling some more. As we waited for the chapati to get ready  I took time to have a conversation with the boys – asking questions in turns as they answered.

How did you end up here I asked Aggrey? “My father married another woman forcing my mother to leave. My step mother mistreated me and I ran away from our home which is not very far out of Mbale Town.”
Dennis on the other hand is a Munyoro from Hoima/ Masindi (he doesnt recall) after the death of his father, he moved to Mbale with his mother who abandoned him to go work in Kampala.

Aggrey added that he was in Primary 5 when he left his home.

About 10 – 15 minutes later we are still waiting for the chapati so I decided to take a 5 minutes walk with the boys to a super market to buy the boys some drinks to go with the bites.

On our way to the supermarket Aggrey ask “sir, why are you buying us one chapati each”? Do you want me to buy you two instead? I asked inquisitively pretending not to understand his question. “No, not two. But that’s so kind of you, are you a parent?” Aggrey added. No I am not a parent, but I was once a young boy like you and I know what it means to go hungry. You know? I said. Yes, Aggrey smiled in agreement and went on to thank me.

So I asked what the boys wanted to have for a drink. Aggrey said that I can choose whatever I want – presumably avoiding to flex my budget. Dont worry, I can get you any drink you want so go on a choose, I said. “Well, there are many things I really admire – Mirinda, Mountain Dew” said Aggrey. And what about you Dennis? “I will have some juice” Dennis said. So we got the Mirinda Fruity and some juice.

As we went on and on with our conversation Aggrey picks on the fresh burns on Denni’s left cheek. “Do you see his ear and cheek? Someone poured hot water on him while he was sleeping on the verandah at night.” Aggrey said. “I even have more burns here on my arm, you see” Dennis goes on to unfold his long sleeved t-shirt to show me.

Do you know who did this? I asked. “No, we dont know, we were sleeping when we woke up I was in pain, we didnt recognise the person who did it” says Dennis.

“I took him to St. Francis Hospital and they refused to treat him. So I took him to Red Cross and since then they have been offering some medicine which has helped him to get better. Even this afternoon we went to the Red Cross and they gave him more medicine” says Aggrey.

As Mark and I parted with Aggrey and Dennis, they said that they were going to a “cover” – a place where they can have their chapati and drinks with no interruption while Mark and I drove back to our hotel. After saying “good night” to the kids the two of us go into a small discussion about life and what it means surviving on the streets (of Mbale Town).

I was deeply touched by the stories of Aggrey and Dennis, and I was really disappointed in whoever hurt Dennis. I can go on and on to lament and tell the story of the two boys. But I am glad that I did the little I could for the two boys and I am praying for Dennis’ quick recovery.

Have you ever wondered how many children between the ages of 8 and 17 live on the streets under God knows what circumstances? Or have you ever even cared to know how they got on the streets? Or even who they are?

So, the next time you see a street child I dare you to ask them some of the above questions and please dont mistreat them, try to show them that you care. Bottom line is, BE A RESPONSIBLE CITIZEN!

Life in the URBAN SLUM: Kisenyi

21 02 2012

“I was born in Masajja – a Kampala surburb. My mother worked in Owino market, when I was young she used to carry me on her back every morning and bring me along to the market. Eventually I got used to Owino and found my way to the Kisenyi area. One day I walked out of the market and I didn’t return. This is how I found my way out of the market onto these streets. My mom’s workplace was no place for kids – it was boring.” a fifteen year old street kid said to me.

Often I see young boys and girls on the streets of Kampala looking shabby, starved, lost and puzzled and I wonder – where do they come from? Do they have parents? How do they end up on the streets like homeless cats or stray birds? It breaks my heart to see teens on the streets eating from the garbage, doing drugs, chasing around people; begging for UGX100 (barely a penny!) Monday through Friday when in actual sense they should be in school or their parents’ homes. Many times I have witnessed Kampala City Council Authority “enforcement officers” and Uganda Police roughing them up like wild animals – and only one question comes in my mind: Whose responsibility are these children?

Three weeks ago I found some vague answers to the above questions. I say “vague” because there is very many complicated answers to those questions!

I walked to Kisenyi – the biggest slum in Kampala with friends to do a photo shoot. The idea of the Kisenyi Photo Shoot was born by Andy Kristian (a professional photographer): to go to Kisenyi, take portraits of the people who live and/ work there, print them and then give them a copy to keep. Photos are always beautiful to take, see and keep. Together with a couple of friends (Andy Kristian, Rosebell Kagumire, Edward Echwalu, Ruth Aine, Evelyn Namara, Patricia Twino, Patricia Kahill, Joan Nagujja, Ford Tumwesigye) we went to Kisenyi – the biggest slum downtown Kampala.

It was a very hot Saturday and I got sweatier as we entered the slum. On a hot day like this you need to drink a minimum of 2 liters of water to avoid dehydration. Just like any typical slum, Kisenyi fills up the air soon as you enter the slum; smoke from burning plastic bottles, rubbish littered all over, uncensored language from the youth standing along the road side, shabby young boys and girls, sewage and groups of young men doing drugs openly.

As we entered the slum, my mind wandered 12years back; I used to walk through this slum frequently. In the year 2000 I lived on the outskirts of Kisenyi about 5 minutes walk from this slum; at the time I was only 12. Kisenyi is not just a place for street children, it’s a very commercial slum – maize millers set up their machines here. Kisenyi is the source of most of the maize flour on Kampala’s market, metal works extra. As a child I had to be careful when I walked through this slum. It was always a filthy environment to walk; also the boys and men on the streets were always aggressive. The crime rate in the slum was always high.

My recent visit to the slum (12 years later) was not very different. I could recognize most of the buildings and shortcuts. The young people (I am talking about boys and girls between the age of 4 and 25) in this slum are still doing the drugs in pubic, they don’t have access to clean water, sanitation is still very poor, they all look sweaty and dirty. How or whether they get food at all is not a question because most of them look starved.

Quick forward:

Unlike me, most of my friends had never walked through this slum. And they were all terrified by the kind of environment these young people live in. We walked into the slum carrying smart phones, expensive professional cameras, laptops, iPads and other valuables. Again, you can’t feel safe with this expensive equipment in an environment where people are starving, when young people are doing drugs around you.

Joan Nagujja a volunteer at Peace for Children in Africa together with her colleague helped us to mobile these young for the photo shoot. Peace for Children Africa is a local NGO which is helping rehabilitate and educate the street children in Uganda. One of their projects is focused on rehabilitating the street children in Kisenyi.

After about 30 minutes of mobilizing, we finally got a chance to interact with the young boys and girls who immediately put their demands before the photo shoot. Some of them said that they wanted sugar cane, money, food, water while others were bothered by the heavy presence of camera. When all that was sorted Joan’s colleague talked to a handful of strong looking boys. He told them to maintain order and that he would give them some money after the photo shoot. I was actually hoping that we could get some “big boys” to maintain some order.

Andy Kristian and Edward Echwalu did the actual shooting while I walked around taking random photos. Rosebell and Ruth recorded some of the stories. These young people told different stories on how they ended up in this place, the difficulties they were experiencing and shared some of their dreams. Some of the boys said that their step mothers mistreated/ bewitched them, while some of the young ones were born here – the slum is their home!

Even though some of the youth looked desperate and of course they had higher expectation from us; thinking that we would pay them to take their photos. Others only wanted to smile at the camera, take a few shots and leave.

Edward Echwalu (Left) and Andy Kristian (Right)

As we recorded the stories a woman who was watching from the veranda of her house asked loudly – “why aren’t you taking photos of the girls?” We would very much want to take photos of the girls, but we can’t find any big girls – we responded collectively. She immediately asked a young lady and woman to join the photo shoot. The old woman had scars on her arms she said that they were a result of domestic violence – he husband battered her.

survivor of domestic violence

The myth about slums:

Almost everybody thinks that everyone in the slums is a thief, sex worker, does drugs or has some kind of ill habits. When you go to the slum, the story is different. Well, the myth is partly true but there is more to the myth. The little beautiful children; born in the slum. Women and men work to earn a living to feed/ support their families. I remember the woman who sells sugarcane and I saw a couple of young people sorting rusty pieces of scrap to find reusable parts.

Earning a living in a slum

We can blame the government and Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) all we want but, by now we should know that the government has failed to create a better environment for the children. Let’s stop judging these children or treating them like hooligans and instead help make them better people. It’s about time we all returned to our rightful senses as human beings and find a way of help!

To these cute little children, the slum is their home!

Yes, Spiderman once lived in Kisenyi or some how a little version of his constume ended up here!

The Rest of the photos are available in my Facebook Photo Set: