Our Streets of Despair

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There is very little happiness and laughter here, everybody is miserable because every day we wake up to the same thing. Nothing ever seems to change, it’s the same cup of porridge without sugar in the morning. The same torn trousers for school. The same long line at the tap. The same dump-site and open sewers scenery. The same human filth and dog-shit stench. Life is hard here, everybody is always grumpy, tired of getting up every day to do the same thing over and over and getting nowhere.

Fights start over the silliest things, my friend Godi got a black eye at the tap because someone claimed his mtungi was bigger than the rest and it was finishing water for everyone. Mama says I shouldn’t complain because I’m alive and well and Baba Shadeh says things will change soon after the country gets a new government. Baba Shadeh is a cobbler, he is the one that intervened when I started smoking bhang and threatened to quit school. He was the one who told me that all my peers who had dropped school were either thieves or drug peddlers who were in and out of prison. He told me that would be my route too if I didn’t go back to school. He told me that the pen was the only way I could get Mama out of poverty but if I dropped school the best I could hope for was an early grave.

Baba Shadeh is usually right on a lot of things but not things changing. A new government won’t mean anything besides new faces to continue stealing from us. We sometimes argue for hours. “We have to pick after our leaders and eat their table scraps, what makes you think the new government will want to change that?” Your mind is too old for your age, Baba Shadeh says. Things will be different, you will see.

The campaign caravans are a new distraction in our streets of despair, they come looking for votes but immediately they get what they want we know we won’t see them again. Godi and I often run after them and we sometimes get some money. The hard bit is standing and listening to the empty speeches. Today, our Member-of-Parliament is in a big red car as opposed to the big silver one he had a few days ago. He has his body out on the sunroof. Everything about him is fat: his belly, his fingers, even his face is fat. He is talking about how he will give us title deeds for our shanty houses that are built on road reserve and how he will rob himself off his salary and use it to give the youth jobs and clean our streets of despair, something he has not managed to do for all of the five years he has been in office but we still chant and scream his name after his every word because our stomachs are empty.

We are given branded T-shirts after the rally. I wear mine home and Mama is in uproar. She says I am supporting the enemy, she says I’m a traitor. She says she isn’t using her money to take me to school so that I can betray her like this. She makes me remove the T-shirt and use it as a duster. I go to Baba Shadeh for solace and find him meticulously cleaning a shoe, his big hands almost covering it whole. He laughs when I tell him about my pain. He tells me I will have all the T-shirts in the world when the new government is installed. Mama will get a government job and I will get all the nice things I want. I see how he gets interested in life when I talk about Mama. He says Mama is not a woman that can be refused, he says she is a woman who men pay attention to.

I wake up to no porridge in the house. Mama went to Marikiti to buy fresh fish to sell in the market so I go to Baba Shadeh for company. People are skeptical about bringing their shoes to be mended with the elections looming. They are afraid of using the little money they have left and business is doing badly so he is not as busy as he sometimes is. I dig into the bowl of githeri he is holding. Baba Shadeh doesn’t have a wife not even Shadeh is around. He was killed in the hands of the police after he got tied up in a gang. Sometimes, Baba Shadeh will go into a trance and blab, “They could have arrested my boy instead of shooting him. Three bullets, three: one in the chest, the other in the neck and one in the head. They could have arrested my boy instead.” He tells me I should be very careful with the police because they are blood thirsty and they have been trained to value material possessions more than human life, he tells me if I see them coming in one direction I should run in the other direction.

The elections are scheduled for the morrow, our streets of despair are not as miserable as they usually are. People are smiling and calling each other jirani and shemeji. There is a feeling of unity that I know won’t last. The new government won’t come to our streets of despair to build us new houses, if anything we should be afraid of the change. Our shanty is built on a government road reserve and if the new government decides that it needs wider roads more than it needs its citizens we will all be out in the cold. I brought this up to Baba Shadeh and he dismissed it but I also saw something in his face I have never seen before. A miscarried hope. A naked fear.

Baba Shadehs shoe-shop stays open the day people go to vote and he still opens it the day after when the riots start. We hear the first gunshot when he is telling me in a matter-of-fact way that the election was stolen and quoting Martin Luther King that riots are the language of the unheard. The sound of the fourth gunshot cracks my ears like an explosive, painting me with confusion. Baba Shadeh gets up incensed his face tightening and his muscles tensing and tells me to go and protect Mama. The words dropping like a sledge hammer from his wide jaw and I shoot off.

The green trucks appear from nowhere and a sea of soldiers in green garb and black boots march in every direction to deal with the menace of unarmed poor people. Wailing is rank in the air and my heart is in my teeth as I run towards our shanty house, diving past a man getting clobbered for shouting the name of the opposition leader. I run and run but I feel as if I’m walking. Time is cruel and punishing. Minutes feel like hours and I feel as if I will never get to Mama. I have to reach Mama, to protect her with the panga that is under her bed against trained soldiers who have guns.

I trip on something and fall, it’s one of Godi’s shoe, worn out and desolate on the road soaking in thick red blood but Godi is nowhere to be seen. Gunshots and screams boom as I get to our house. Mama is not here, I get on my hands and knees, go under her bed and take the panga and make back for Baba Shadeh’s shop. I have to protect mama, I have to protect my friend Godi, and I have to protect Baba Shadeh. The streets are emptier than before. Bodies are lying on the streets like bags of charcoal and a few screams and gunshots can be heard in the distance. I start running wondering why this is happening, Baba Shadeh told me this wouldn’t happen, he told me tomorrow would be better, this wasn’t the dream.

I get to the shop and find Baba Shadeh lying on his back with a red dot oozing blood on his forehead and his eyes blank like the pages of a new exercise book. I hold him by the shoulders with one hand and hold the panga with my other hand. I shake him while screaming, “Baba Shadeh! Baba Shadeh!” But there is no response. From behind the veil of my tears I see Mama across the street, her dress torn, with one bare breast hanging out of her blouse and a big blood stain on her buttocks. “Run!” I hear her scream at me. “Get out of there!” The last thing I hear is a gunshot and a sharp shrill from Mama and then the shivering comes and then the darkness swallows me.


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