I approached the traffic lights slowly. I was driving home from work. The lights were on red. I always try to beat the time when approaching traffic lights by driving slowly so that I don’t come to a complete stop or stay too long. Although it was only 5 p.m. and darkness far from registering, I always fear stopping at this particular spot. For me, it never matters whether it’s day or night, this spot makes me uncomfortable. It instils fear in me. Not because of a particular incident that happened there but just because it seems to be one of the favorite places for street kids. While the other spots with traffic lights are mostly frequented by beggars of all ages, you will only find kids by the traffic lights on Presidential Drive in City Centre.
Street kids make me jittery. Much as their situation and plight need our sympathy, in trying to survive on the streets, they have become thugs. The streets have robbed them of their childhood innocence. And this has robbed my trust in them. They are now capable of many criminal acts. I remember my experience with one of them many years back in Limbe. Just after coming out of Chitawira Superette, I was met by a street kid who asked for money. I told him that I did not have any and proceeded towards Livingstone Road where I was to catch a bus home. Most beggars would leave you if you are not showing interest. But this one clearly was not “most beggars.” Instead, he let out a piece of a broken glass bottle and threatened to cut me with it if I dared not give him any money.
This kid intended to frighten me. And frightened I got. Despite Limbe Town being always busy with people covering every centimeter and moving in all directions like New York on Christmas eve, on this particular day, I felt like I was alone in a desert. The few people I could see were all in a hurry going their ways and could not care less about my growing predicament. I threw glances at a few corners where ordinarily a police officer would be positioned so I could shout for help or run to, but there were none. On this day, the universe had surely conspired to abandon us, me and this kid, who seemed to know about this conspiracy for not showing any intent to retreat. He was even blocking my way as I walked. The only logical thing to do was to yield to his demand and give him some money. But my ego, on this day, was not ready to allow that kind of defeat. I decided to up my game. My heart was still pacing fast from fear that I would swear it could be heard from a few steps away, but I increased my steps and started shouting at him nervously as you do when being followed or chased by a dog. “Choka, choka! (Go away, go away!) I threatened I would give him a good beating if he dared cut me with his weapon.
I had heard stories about suffrage at the hands of street boys. The cursing, snatching of handbags and parcels. The scratching of paint on cars. Most of these street kids had ran away from institutions, like Chisomo Children's Home, where government and well-wishers place them to receive care, reform, education and where they would get molded into useful future citizens. But while some stay, others run away and live on the streets. They get used to receiving money from sympathizers and find the constraints of confinement a waste of valuable money time. And while some are orphans, numerous others have parents or guardians who push them to the streets to beg, a coping mechanism that thrives on the pity for children, even though it caters to the wellbeing of entire families. And thus, regardless of what measures are put in place, they continue to roam the streets.
After some nervous shouting and now approaching the road, the boy realized that he was making no headway with me and I had started to attract some attention. He finally left me alone and run the direction we had come from. I was relieved, but I remained nervous for some hours. Since then, I have always avoided street kids, especially when they are in a group. And even on that day, they were also in a group at the traffic lights by Umodzi Park as I drove from Capital Hotel round about towards the Parliament Building.
Despite driving slowly, the light was still on red when I got there. Luckily there were a couple of cars in both lanes. The boys were seated in the middle of the road, about four of them. To my surprise, they didn't move. They just stared at the idling cars and continued chatting. It seemed so out of order. Instead of feeling relieved, I was browsing in my head for an explanation. What was going on? Were they tired? Had they seen a police car? Did they just look at us and concluded we were stingy?
As these thoughts raced through my head, I heard one of them tell his friends: “mwezi uwowo eti umawonekanso kumudzi kwa mayi anga (that moon can also be seen in my mother's village).” He was meanwhile pointing at the moon that was already in full view. From the excitement with which he told his friends, it was clear this discovery was still fresh on him. His friends sounded surprised that this could be possible. In as far as they were concerned, there were several moons out there and you see different ones wherever you go. And of course, that should be true for anyone who didn't go to school to learn how the cosmos work. And obviously these kids were not in school and there was a high possibility that they would never be in school. Suddenly, the curious conversation had my heart softened. I wish I could ask them to come closer, so I could ask them why they were not in school. To ask them if they didn't want to know why the same moon they had been looking at could also be seen not only in their mother's village but from everywhere on earth.
And, suddenly, I became gripped with a tinge of sadness. I felt sad at the thought that life in less developed countries like Malawi only favors those that have money. The have-nots continue to wallow in poverty, with limited to no opportunities. The cycle of poverty continues in their families’ generation after generation and there is no hope of it breaking unless government took deliberate steps to intervene. Without intervention, it is these kinds of people that will later believe that blood suckers exist, they shall follow one prophet after another as they shout “I receive” because they wouldn't know what is and what is not, and also paint their bodies in party colors at political rallies for some free beer and a few Kwachas.
I heard some hooting. The light had turned to green. I drove away still feeling sorry for those kids. I thought about them all way home. I thought of how it would help if Government built more schools and fully equipped them with resources for the benefit of the ultra-poor. But before I could reach home, I came to the realization that this was just wishful thinking. That, at that moment, I was not living in the same Malawi like everyone else. I had just read on social media that day that government was planning on building football stadia all over the country and not schools. An uneducated population is easier to rule. Lucky Dube's ‘Prisoner’ started playing on my mind:
They won't build no schools anymore All they'll build will be prison, prison.
Unlike South Africa's apartheid regime then that built prisons to lock in the blacks instead of schools, our democratic government is planning on building stadia for the poor instead of schools. The sight of pupils learning under trees or in grass thatched classrooms without textbooks, note books, laboratories and enough teachers never bothers them.
I had problems falling asleep that night. I went out and stared at the moon searching for answers. I found none.