Saturday, April 17, 2010
Did you find Simon?
12:30 am, cinched up the green surplus backpack with a camera and light and headed out through the lobby of the New Palms Hotel in Mombasa.
12:31 am: Guard asks, "Why are you going out alone at this hour?" "To find a friend" - a statement that was ambiguous and surely misinterpreted.
12:31-1am: dodged the massive, colorful grasping nails of hookers, the spittle of drunks and the ill-intent of the shadow-lurkers while stopping to talk to anyone who looked friendly about the whereabouts of our friend and street boy Simon (pictured here). As I walked around like Zelda, it occurred to me that it strikes most people here in Kenya as extremely odd to see whitey walking around past his bedtime asking about street children in broken Swahili. It's enough to become what's happening on any block. I produced this photo for onlookers to consider. They'd snatch it, rip off 10 sentences of coast Swahili in 10 seconds, each in some way saying "Yes, I know him, but he has gone to _____". After a half-hour hour of mauling, the photo and I were covered in glue and the party lines were that Simon was either dead, in Nairobi, or could be found in "just-around-the-corner-let-me-show-you-town" (i.e. Hey Jackass, can I rob you?).
1am: I gave up for the night, not wanting to lose the camera or our lucky backpack.
1:15am: One of the especially young street-girl/ prostitutes shouts at me from across the street of a sinister looking club called Casablanca. She says "Bring me that photo!!" I do. A guy slightly bigger than me with home-court advantage says again, "I know him. He's at Tonanoka Center. I take you there now". The girl says I can trust him. After a long look, I decide not to trust him tonight. Bidding thanks I play dumb/tired and stroll down a random street to lose their attention. Some of them casually follow for a block or two and eventually go back to their corner roost.
1:20am Sitting, waiting for inspiration and a quiet street, a tuk-tuk pulls up, stops, driver looks over and beeps. I ask him, "You know Tonanoka Center". "I know it, surely" says he. "Twende" (We go), thinking it couldn't hurt to go to this place on my own, enjoying the anonymous whisk of a tuk-tuk ride.
1:30am 2-3 miles from my hotel street, thinking to myself, "F&ck this is stupid", we pull up at the Tonanoka center, which is nothing more than another abandoned soccer field. It's very dark and the chances of finding anything positive were nillish. As I was saying "OK, we go back", 3 kids wander out of some scrap metal shelter to see about this peculiar noise in their hood. I jump out and show the photos one last time. The 3 of the 4 "boys" were now looking more like withered, malnourished 40 year-old men. They passed it around, hemmed and hawed, scratched and shook...with the exception of Amos, probably 13 years old, who quietly said, "Najua, iko karibu...[something something something]" (I know him, he's here).
With that rare kind of instant, mutual trust, I ask him if he wants to ride along and show me where this place is exactly. He hops into the tuk-tuk and we go further down the dark road.
1:45am Amos is whispering directions over the lawn-mower sound of the tuk-tuk as we go rightleftrightleftleftleftrightupdownaround and finally he says "Hapa, ngoja". (Here, wait). He jumps out and runs through a gate built 100 years ago into some place that looks like a graveyard. The sign on the gate was hand-painted and read Anglican Church Training Center.
Totally skeptical, the tuk-tuk driver turned the engine off and we sat down together on a log.
1:50 After a few minutes of eavesdropping on my driver as he argued presumably with his wife, out of the dark and through the gate comes Amos...with some guy that skip-walked a lot like Simon. As he walked towards us through the headlights of the tuk-tuk, he couldn't see us, but I could see him. The flashbacks began immediately. In moments, I could see him sitting on the beach talking to us last year wearing our crappy wire mic, hearing him tell us about the land taken from him by a malicious relative who still wants to kill him, about how the people of Mombasa won't help his friends because they're outcasts, about the corruption rotting Kenya from the streets to parliament, about his dream to start his own business, starting small with selling eggs on the street, moving up to a small street-side vendor, then renting a place to cook for and seat patrons, then a bigger one, on and on, looking skyward as he spoke.
Here he was again, one year later, and down this dark road in the late evening was not a graveyard, but instead the quiet dormitory of the C.I.T.C. Mombasa College of Catering.
He was as shocked and excited as I was to meet again. Last we heard from him, one year ago was a rushed phone call from a borrowed phone, on the eve of our departure from Kenya, to express his gratitude for our gift of eggs, a stove and a bucket to start his curbside business. His call made a long, hard trip completely worthwhile and thinking about it still chokes me up. I have no idea tonight if our presence in his life last year made any consequential difference for him, but it's possible that Simon's potential was ripe and really only needed the slightest nudge. There are thousands of kids in this country that only need a nudge.
Now here he stood again. Simon was in school, studying to do what he dreamed- proud as hell. We're meeting with him tomorrow to catch up properly.
3:30am I'm finding it hard to sleep.