The boy and the bicycle

Every trip into Eldoret brings some event or another, here’s the story of one of David’s recent encounters:

“I have a new bicycle! It is a lovely, racing green, and called Trinity, and was one of the cheaper models on sale, yet still far beyond most locals’ purses. It’s a mountain bike, with 21 gears, and decent saddle – not one of those saddles that are so sharp that it carves one’s nether regions into bacon slices!
Pride and JoyAnyway, I won’t bore you with further rhapsody, other than to observe that it has given me far more delight and contentment than many vehicles I have owned, and because it is relevant to the story I am about to relate.
So, I have just jumped on said bike for the first time, threaded my way through the main highway, and am enjoying a descent down the slope of Kenyatta Street, feeling great, delighting in the wind in my face, when out in front of me steps a street boy.
He looks to be about 12, in rags and tatters, and as in previous encounters with other street kids, is demanding and rude.
The hand goes out, stuck right in front of one’s face, and the request for alms is not so much a query as a demand; almost imperious.
He cannot know that I am fed up with demands for money from complete strangers, that the way they ask really annoys me, that I have seen him and his ilk fighting each other, bullying smaller kids, and looking for things to steal.
I slide past, chewing over the received wisdom here, which is not to give money, but to buy food for such unfortunates.
So I stop, with a satisfying squeal of brakes, and look over my shoulder at him.
“Money, no,” I say in my poor Kiswahili, “Chakula – food – yes”.
He looks hopeful. I observe him more closely. He is a good-looking lad under the grime, and probably far older than I first thought, as I am a poor judge of younger people’s ages.
There was an embarrassing incident in London when I asked a young lady if she was enjoying school, and what were her favourite subjects, only for her to reply that she had just completed her degree and was now job-hunting!
And if a poor judge of age back in the UK, I’m even worse here, having underestimated people’s ages by anything between 10 to 15 years.

“Come here,” I commanded the lad. “Any food close by?” I continued, again massacring the grammar and syntax of Swahili. Fortunately, he understood.
I gestured for him to lead, and freewheeled my pride and joy after him, round a dusty corner, to a typical Eldoret eatery.
Here, a lady, sitting in a grilled kiosk on the right-hand side, guarding the front door; she is the one who takes the cash and writes receipts, and is usually a member of the owner’s family.
There, at the rear, a small kitchen that pumps out the standard local fare – ugali with various vegetables, meat, if you can afford it, chapattis, chips, washed down by chai or a soda.
In between, six plastic covered tables crammed close to each other and a small kitchen at the rear; and everywhere a hubbub of noise, both inside and out.
Eldoret hums with activity like a mad clockwork toy, only slowing down to an easier tempo on Sundays – and this was a Thursday.

I made the lad hold my bike as I leaned inside and spoke to the boss lady, asking her to feed the boy, and, asked him what he wanted. A look of joy crossed his face, and “Chipsi!” he replied. Chips are taken here with a red sauce, sweet chilli which looks to be more colouring than anything else, but which locals use to decorate their piles of chips, and then get stuck in, with great relish – in both senses of that word.
As I examined her face through the kiosk bars, the boss lady looked sour, as if she had a sore tooth, as if the whole episode was morally wrong. It never crossed my mind that he would eat inside – it was clear that a rigid line was drawn across the doorway. And it was clear that he could be supplied, be fed, with a take-away, but not welcomed over the threshold onto proper people’s territory.
“Bei gani – how much?” I asked. It turned out to be 105 shillings, which seemed quite high, and as usual made me wonder if there was a special mark-up applied just for white faces – or perhaps just for me because I look like a sucker? – but I duly paid up and was solemnly given a hand-written receipt.

So there I am, looking down from the doorway step at this lost lad, waiting for his bowl of chips, having reinforced his habit of begging; seeing him look up hopefully, not so much at me as at the mecca of food behind me, and I was still feeling euphoric from the exercise and that nobility of purpose that so often afflicts us do-gooders.
“Unaitwa – what is your name?” I asked. He was taken aback, clearly surprised at such familiarity. Had I crossed a line?
“Kevin” he softly replied, and we made eye contact. That hit me. Kevin is the name of my brother-in-law, back in the old country, and when I first met him he was 12 years old.

I nodded in acknowledgment and told him my name, which seemed to be of no interest to him, but it had to be done, otherwise I would have held more power over him, holding his name while he did not have mine.
Then, recovering my shiny, new, totally-beyond-his-means pushbike, I leapt back on to it and pedalled away.

Later, toiling in the steaming sun up the long slope that leads home, honked at by lorries that insist cyclists get out of their way as they fully intend to mow you down if you stay on the tarmac, I pondered the entire episode.
As my heart rate went up with the climb, so, inversely, did my feel-good factor.

Consider!

I can plead that the bike cannot be left safely in Eldoret – even with a lock, it is a tantalising temptation for many locals, and any thief worth his salt will have a serviceable set of bolt cutters ready to sever bicycle security chains. True.
I can plead that I was focused upon a task – to feed the lad – and had already predetermined how to achieve this aim. Also true.
I can further plead that I breached the unspoken protocols that govern such “charity” encounters. The boy wanted a gift, but nothing more from me, and my importance to him was as a supplier, a mark – that unpleasant word used by hustlers for their victims – and nothing more. In asking him his name, I raised our joint humanity, and dignified his, regardless of colour, language, class.
All true, I guess. But at the risk of annoying any pragmatic and hard-headed readers – after all what difference does feeding one street boy make? – I cannot ignore a niggle that brings me back to that invisible yet exclusive line, so obviously drawn across the eatery doorway.

That line is as strong and powerful as security clearance at Heathrow Airport.

What would have happened if I had parked the bike, and taken the boy in with me, to sit with him while he waited and then ate? Given him some time and attention as well as feeding him?

Would they have allowed him to cross this line, to experience the Eldorado of the Eatery, to cross this apartheid line, if accompanied by me?
And if not, would I have protested?
In the end, did I appease my conscience, my liberal, but perhaps soft-headed tendencies, by this feeding transaction, yet avoid embarrassment in so doing, failing to identify myself with the thieves, the poor, the rejected?
I can’t escape the afterthought, that our High Master would have offered the boy an encounter, while I only acted under the codes of respectability and reasonableness.
His name is Kevin.
Remember that.”

And finally as we approach this Easter, the centre and heartbeat of our spiritual walk, we are very aware that many of our blog following well-wishers are from a variety of belief/ faith backgrounds but whatever you call yourself we hope and pray that this season is a source of blessing to you.

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8 thoughts on “The boy and the bicycle

  1. I “call myself”, ‘Jeremy’…and Alison, Helen, Tom and I (not to mention our congregation) send our best wishes for your first Easter ‘out there’. Rainy season coming on with you or not…I bet it is warmer with you than it is here in the UK…even on the Costa del sol of Dorset! Brrr!

  2. I genuinely thought this blog post was going to end with you engaging him to be your personal bicycle guard for future trips. Perhaps this encounter with Kevin is of mutual benefit!

  3. There are many Davids but I guess not many Mzungu with new green bikes who take the trouble to stop and engage beyond the handout .Happy Easter x

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