Three weeks ago I visited Nairobi, Kenya for a week-long conference hosted by the University of Nairobi at its Science Campus on Ngong Road.
I was thrilled to add yet another great city on my list of previous destinations.
Little did I know that my Nairobi experience would be far from thrilling; and that a socio-economic plight would leave a bitter-sweet taste in my heart and keep me pre-occupied as to when many African citizens would finally be extricated from their harsh unforgiving socio-economic bondage.
One evening I decided to venture out a little beyond my mundane dwelling at Kipepeo Hotel on River Road.
I had not walked for more than 200 metres when I came across a group of about eight kids who appeared to call the streets their permanent home.
Their ages ranged from about five to thirteen. Nearby a lady sat on the pavement with a one-year-old kid playing by her side.
The boys huddled together over some card game and each had a 250ml plastic bottle hanging on their mouth.
These bottles made me stop to determine precisely what was going on and why each child had one on his mouth.
Soon I discovered they were all sniffing glue; even the smell became obvious. The tiny bottles hardly left the mouths of these equally tiny chaps. The parental instinct in me suddenly kicked in and I rounded them up to find out more.
An older boy of about fifteen who could speak some broken English suddenly emerged, also with his glue bottle, to furnish me with more details.
He pointed at one very small boy and told me that his mother had died and that he had kept him and a few others under his wing.
One of the boys had a plaster on what appeared to be a wound on his shaven head.
I learnt it was a result of a street fight with another boy. I then told them all to wait for me at the same spot where I had found them as I rushed into a nearby restaurant and bought the only three available sausage rolls.
I distributed small pieces starting with the youngest boys and the mother of the one-year-old. It was a touching sight as each shouted “I am small, give!”
Courtesy was never part of the jungle in which they lived as they snatched the pieces from my hand.
I wondered when it was the last time they had a meal and when next they would have another.
The older boy who could speak some English then told me the woman had been evicted by her landlord and needed 2 000 Kenyan Shillings (about M280) to move back into her rented room.
I wondered for how long she would manage to secure the accommodation before again defaulting on her rent.
Upon further inquiry I learnt she had two other children besides the toddler.
I then gave her a long, probably useless, lecture about how expensive it was to raise children and that she should never have anymore.
She nodded in agreement but without having taken her for immediate sterilisation, I can’t guarantee how effective my lecture was.
I then turned on the boys and tongue-lashed them for continuously sniffing the toxic substance. They seemed slightly worried when they detected my emotion and tone as I pointed at their glue-stuffed bottles.
But I knew this was a battle I just couldn’t win without providing them with an alternative lifestyle.
The older boy plainly told me the harsh street life made it impossible for them not to take glue as it was their only means to endure the hardships.
Intoxication was the only way to temporarily escape their misery.
When I parted with them, some made it clear they wanted to come to Lesotho with me. It was difficult to hold the tears back as I wondered exactly what the future (if there’s any to talk about) holds for them and I thought about the many kids in my own country going through similar experiences.
I had the most uncomfortable sleep that night. I could already foresee the harsh street life snuffing out their childish innocence and replacing it with hardened criminality.
After all what do they have to lose?
When I went to see them again the next evening with some bread and sweets, I found an entirely different group!
These boys are just some of the depressing statistics that Mother Africa is richly endowed with.
Far too many of our people keep looking towards the distant horizon yet never see any rays of hope emerging.
Whether it is Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy, or South Africa, the continent’s number one economy, social wretchedness abounds.
Besides joblessness, which plagues much of the world today, Sub-Saharan Africa is home to disturbing HIV/Aids statistics.
Our villages, towns and cities will just keep churning out numerous hungry and tattered street children as long as HIV’s ever-busy conveyer belt keeps turning.
As long as family values face escalating erosion and some men conveniently neglect their own offspring, the battle is far from being won.
One of the stories in the Kenyan papers during my visit was of a woman who had been arrested for abandoning her baby claiming to be too poor to feed it.
African poverty is much harder to swallow as it persists in the context of untold corruption where some of those we vote into power to make a difference simply choose the route of selfish interests and forget about the millions who sleep on the cold hard pavements and have turned rubbish bins into valuable food sources.
If Africans could be asked what the biggest threat to their democracies is, most would almost unanimously single out corruption.
You and I cannot hope to solve all the world’s problems.
Even Bill and Melinda Gates with their billions of dollars can only do so much.
But the little we do to put a smile on a young haggard face sends the positive message that humanity cares.
- Mahao Mahao is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the National University of Lesotho