Jonas and Livingstone
... a story of what happens when children are uneducated ...
... a story of what happens when children are uneducated ...
It is Saturday evening and I've finally had supper. The day was anything but blissful. Blissful implies harps and angels and somnolent postures on a lazy river or under a scarcely moving cloud filled sky.
Today began with three sets of visitors: a man selling bougainvillea; a woman wondering what had happened to her LIFA interview and two boys in their late teens. Marie and Sarah dealt with the bougainvilleas. I explained to the woman that she had been an excellent candidate but out of our league in salary expectations. Then Sarah and I spent the next several hours dealing with the boys.
They had never known their father and lived with their mother, at first alone, and then with a stepfather. When the mother died in 2000, the stepfather told them they were not his children and they had to leave. Out on the street they sought help and were rewarded by the attentions of a man who agreed to take them in. He kept them with him for two months and then locked them up and told them that he was a devil worshipper and they were to be sold as sacrifices to devils in Nairobi. He left for Nairobi. They screamed loudly enough to attract attention and were released by a neighbour woman who suggested they come to seek help from us.
Now anyone from our background finds herself thinking, "Yeah, sure, devil worshippers and human sacrifices. Right."
But when we asked Elliot the replacement askari about devil worship he was quite clear that this exists here; that they go into churches in the dead of night, and make terrible sacrifices and drink the blood … and that they are incredibly lucky people financially. They drive big cars with smoked glass windows. Anyone who gets linked up with them has to stay or die. Elliot doesn't believe. He's a Christian. But he knows it exists here … and he's not at all sure that the sacrifices don't work.
I asked Livingstone, the older of the boys and the one who spoke quite passable English, to take a note and go see Sister Augustina who runs the children's home. Elliot gave them directions (with the help of the husband of the lady who'd come to ask about the interview results) to Sister Augustina's. I gave them 40 shillings to take a boda boda.
An hour or so later, I was at the computer working on a proposal for SAIPE, when Sarah informed me that the boys were back. They had my note with a note to Father Lubanga on the back. Sister said she couldn't help but perhaps he could. They had no idea where Father Lubanga could be found. Elliot called to a woman on the road and asked if she was Catholic. She was. She suggested a most difficult way to find the good father. I decided to call first.
A telephone call is never a simple thing in Kenya. We tried the number we were given and got a high pitched scream announcing it was long distance. We hunted all through the phone book for area codes and could not find this one. I phoned the post office for information. They directed me (after a five minute wait) to a 900 number that was busy. At that point Wycliffe Kibisu arrived.
"Are you Catholic?" I asked. No ‘Hello.' No ‘How are you?' Just a demand for his religion.
He looked a little taken aback but responded. "No. But Catherine is."
"Can you phone her to find out where we can find Father Lubanga?"
Wycliffe has been around enough Canadians to know that we are not as polite a people as we should be; that we often forget the formalities of handshakes and queries about health before getting down to business, so he picked up the phone and called his girlfriend. A few minutes later we knew how to find the good father and Wycliffe drove us to the Catholic Mission.
The parish office is an oasis of quiet set back in from the market stalls and frenetic activity of the main road. We sat in the shade awaiting our turn to enter the office to tell our story to the young priest looking after things in Father Lubanga's absence. He questioned the boys closely about their parentage and about the possibility of finding relatives who might help. "We can't take them here," he said. "We only take high school boys." Livingstone has grade 4 and his brother, Jonas, grade 3. They are 17 and 18 years old.
"What are we going to do?"
"I think they should return to Mbale and stay with the neighbour who helped them escape. Then all three can come back in here to try to sort this out on Monday," the priest said quietly.
"Will they be too frightened to return to Mbale?" I asked.
He spoke to them a moment in Kiswahili. "It's okay."
"What do you think?" I asked Sarah.
She nodded. "It's the only way."
We each dug 50 shillings from our pockets to pay their fare back to Mbale and to bring them in again on Monday.
"God bless you," Livingstone said at the gate.
"If things don't work out," Sarah said, "You come back to us. Don't end up on the street." They nodded.
Our conversation on the way home was subdued. Even if you solve one of the problems for these kids, another one pops up. If they find someone to look after them in return for board what future do they have? If we could find them a home in Imbale they could attend a LIFA centre to get their primary education. Then they'd have to get the four years of high school including just staying alive during all those years.
We stopped in the market for fruit and vegetables on the way home.
I know that people who read my last account of lost boys and devil worshippers have probably dismissed me as either a complete flake or as incurably naïve, but yesterday the saga continued, and so too, do I.
Livingstone and Jonas arrived just as we were getting ready to leave for Isulu where we were opening a new LIFA centre. I looked at them with dismay and said, "But you were supposed to go to the Catholic church today with your neighbour."
Livingstone nodded and said, "We went, but he sent us here." He handed me a note that read like any cop-out.
"I have listened to the two boys but I get no solution. Their age is beyond the children's home. They want a course of which this parish doesn't have. I hereby request you to see what to be done if possible. Thank you. God bless. Yours in Christ, Father Lubanga"
Christ is right. I'm leaving in five minutes. What in Christ's name am I supposed to do now? I told Everlyne, our office manager, whose heart is much bigger than the rest of her, a condensed version of Saturday's tale. When I climbed into the overloaded taxi she was deep in conversation with the boys.
We think we have managed to do the impossible, thanks to Everlyne.
None of the children's homes we approached seemed to be the answer. What we needed was some way to feed and house these children long enough to get them some kind of skill, but, because they have no education, most training routes were closed to them.
Everlyne scouted around until she found a jua kali welder who is training boys to weld. These roadside fundis or tradesmen make a living for themselves with the smallest possible expenditure. He was willing to train Livingstone and Jonas for KSh 2000 per month. Since the training will lead to a job, they fit into the CIDA part of our scholarship programme so ACCES is able to pay for them to get this training.
Everlyne then went looking for appropriate lodging. Titus, one of our students, lives in a very small place, probably a room measuring about 8x10, but when Everlyne asked if he would take the boys in for a year, he said, "Of course. You have been so generous to me, I must be generous too." His face became grave, and then he continued, "There is a problem though. My mattress is very small." Everlyne assured him that we would purchase mattresses and sheets for the boys.
We will give the boys enough to cover their food and they will pool their food money with Titus' so that all can survive less expensively.
Everlyne had thought of everything including the need to sit down together, all of us, so that Titus and the boys could work out a harmonious living arrangement. The meeting is to be held on Wednesday afternoon.
I hope that these boys are mature enough to make this arrangement work. The younger of the two tends to sound like a teenager anywhere. "What I really want to do is drive. I want to take a driving course." No thought of what car he would drive. No idea of how few cars exist in Kenya. No concept of how limiting their grade three and four educational levels are. Most of the time you can listen to kids being stubborn and say to yourself, "Oh well they'll grow up one day." With these kids they can't afford to make any mistakes. They have to grow up now.
Eventually we were forced to admit that our trust had been misplaced; that too many years of neglect had done irreparable damage; that the boys could not adjust to the discipline of an apprenticeship. Despite the good will of people like Titus and the welder who wanted to train them, despite the real efforts everyone made to convince these boys of their role in making this last chance work, despite the best of intentions, these two fell through the cracks. They goofed off. They lied when they were asked to account for irresponsible behaviour. They hid letters they were asked to deliver to people. We could not help them. It was too late for Livingstone and Jonas. I was forced to write the following letter to the first woman who had attempted to help the boys when she made another attempt to get help.
18 March 2003
P.O. Box 20
RE: Agiza Mizilet, Livingstone, and Jonas
Dear Mrs. Nawire:
As our office manager, Mrs. Everlynne Musalia, has explained, ACCES sponsors students in post- secondary or trades training. It does not sponsor secondary students. Please do not send us any more requests for help for children or young people we are unable to sponsor.
We have just washed our hands of Livingstone and Jonas. We went far beyond our normal scope of activities in our attempts to help these boys, but they have proven to be dishonest, lazy and ungrateful.
Initially, we were touched by their plight and exerted considerable effort in an attempt to find them an organisation which would provide shelter, food and possibly training. All four of the organisations we approached on their behalf refused them or were unable to give them any chance at a better future.
At that point we looked at our own resources within ACCES. Despite their low level of education, we felt that we could get them some kind of apprenticeship training under a jua kali fundi if we were also able to provide accommodation. Mrs. Musalia approached one of our sponsored students and asked him if he would share his accommodation. Titus very generously agreed to take in the two boys. Mrs. Musalia arranged with a welder, who was training other young boys, to have Livingstone and Jonas taken into his programme. ACCES paid their fees for six months, gave them a living allowance, and bought them shoes, clothing, mattresses, and sheets. This was, of course, in addition to all the smaller sums for transport already given to them. In all we spent almost 17,000 shillings, enough for a full year's fees and accommodation at a university for a promising student.
Imagine our concern when the trainer arrived to tell us that the boys were not attending classes. We sent a letter to Titus with the boys asking him to explain clearly that they must attend class or be discontinued as sponsored students. Titus never received the letter. The boys had lost it. Jonas complained of illness. When he was examined by the nurse at ACCES, he was found to be perfectly healthy. He complained about his eyes and was sent with a note to the eye clinic. They agreed to provide sun glasses for KSh450, but Jonas came home to tell Titus that the doctor had told him that further work as a welder would cause him to go blind. When I interviewed the doctor I was told that was a complete lie; that he had told him the cost of sunglasses but had not even examined his eyes nor made such a statement.
All of us who have dealt with these boys in good faith have been disappointed and we have told them to leave Titus' home, taking with them the clothing we have provided. The welding trainer has been paid for six months' training, and should they find a way to survive, they will be able to continue their welding training until that money runs out. I doubt very much if they will do that, because they seem to want a free ride rather than an honest chance to improve their lot.
I have gone into such great detail so you will have a clear picture of what has happened here. Should they return to Mbale and to you, you will be aware of exactly what has transpired.
When I wrote off the boys, I felt as if I had failed ... failed to judge accurately, but also failed to do enough. My best wasn't good enough for these boys.