By Sydney Chuka
Photo credits: The Shire Porter Photography
Below is the plot of the play that was performed by the children.
The first scene was set in a typical Malawian village. The set was bare. You had to listen to the context of the dialogue to work out the location. As the step-daughter sat on the floor of the deck, sorting out beans for the meal in the evening; the father came home drunk. He hurled insults at her and accused her for stealing his money. She was not sure what money he was referring to: was it the money that he had just spent at the nearby pub or was he referring to the money that he had invested in her as his step-daughter. She defended herself. He attacked her. Her mother was not home. She freed herself from his grasp. She ran for her life. She did not look back.
She found her way to the city of bright lights, Lilongwe. Determined to be an independent young woman, she was the perfect prey. A Human Resources Manager of a street gang head hunted her. Without much of an application or an interview and with approval from the boss, they abducted her into their employee. She was the new starlet of their business empire. This was the hope that she desperately needed. She attended orientation. She graduated but not one of her family members were present to see the proud smile that she wore on her face. She was a professional ruse. Her role in society was to distract men as they get pick pocketed.
Back in the village, her mother Juliet came home and found her daughter to be missing. She asked her small-village Romeo of the whereabouts of their daughter. He denied ever having a daughter. Armed with a heart of love, he beat her and the other children under the roof of his protection. The scene resounded with a different but yet applicable meaning to the Shakespearian words of Friar Lawrence; “These violent delights, have violent ends.”
Elsewhere their missing child had become a masterful pick pocket. Her beautiful smile got the attention of men. She sold an alibi that was so captivating that few would remain indifferent to. The street gang watched her every step as they were on full alert to provide tactical support should things not go according to plan. She reported another successful stint and handed over the loot. She got a meagre commission for her efforts. She struggled to make ends meet. She needed a new job that would give her a worthwhile bonus for her stellar performances. She expanded her professional offering. She solicited her first customer. She sold the only thing that was completely her own; her own body. The admission fee was K10,000. For the first time in her career, she made a profit. She now had real hope. A small reward for an otherwise costly transaction.
As she became a hit on the street, another head hunter spotted her. A gold mine she was. He invited her for a coffee and told her of their boss lady, a respectable woman who could provide access to the big shots. No more dark alleys for her. She would now eat in the finer restaurants, wear glitzy dresses and most importantly, she would become somebody. A force to be reckoned with. Same job, greater rewards. She liked the proposition. She joined. Not long after, her seven-to-five employer noticed the trails of her unexplained wealth. They called for an investigation. It revealed reports of an ever expanding social network. Her two employers fought over her.
A few months later, the golden goose returned to the village. She was ill and pregnant. The violent ending of an otherwise colourful career in the city of bright lights, Lilongwe.
As one drives through Lilongwe on the M1 road, one cannot ignore the bright red lettering “Simama Hotel”, one of the Capital City’s most notable developments in recent years; nonetheless many people ignore another hotel right across the entrance of Simama Hotel. Having lived in the Capital City for most of my life, I only discovered its existence yesterday. As much as I call it a hotel, it is not registered as a hotel, you will never see them advertised at a tourism expo; but they do have staff, a kitchen fitted to feed a large group, a dining room, guests and a checkout registry. Unlike most hotels, the staff of this hotel actually stays in touch with its guests upon their return to normalcy. It does not have late checkout fees and its doors never close. The beauty of this hotel is not in its architecture, frivolous pomp or great reviews on tripadvisor; but rather in the stories of its inhabitants: the street children of Malawi.
I contacted the organisers of the event after I saw the event on Facebook. The poster simply read “Christmas with children from Lilongwe”. Since we are a newsletter focussed on the youth of Malawi around the world, we did not need any further motivation to attend. The future of Malawi would be there and so would we. The date was set. The directions to the venue sounded simple enough but that did not prevent me from getting lost. I was to get to Simama Hotel, turn left and then a right and before me would be signpost. I drove around the neighbourhood for some 15-20 minutes, stopping occasionally to ask for directions. In all fairness, the hawkers in the neighbourhood did not even know the place. About to give up, I met an elderly lady who directed me to the Social Rehabilitation Centre. As I drove in, I realised why I could not locate the venue, it barely had a readable signpost.
Feeling guilty for showing up 10 minutes late, I got to work immediately. The children were gathered in a dimly lit room with green and black plastic chairs, cream burglar bars and light green walls. The children were playing Lilongwe Got Talent, a localised version of Britain Got Talent in which each member of the audience was also a judge. The participants would dance to the song being played. The audience would then cast a vocal vote as to whom ought to be eliminated from the contest. The dancing was competitive as every participants used every ounce of energy to twist their bodies to the rhythmic reverberations played by the DJ, Chifundo Tembo. The audience cheered fervently. The finals were between a volunteer, Jabulani Maseko, and one of the children. Jabulani was older than his competitor and from the dancing, one would tell that Jabulani was no longer close the streets, the academy of African dance. The audience unanimously voted against Jabulani. The winner stood in front looking rather exhausted. The audience asked for an encore and the winner obliged. He had fought hard. He was awarded a pair of purple framed sunglasses by one of the volunteers, a much deserved Christmas present. In an act of humility, Jabulani carried the winner when he held him by his legs. The audience cheered once more. The audience joined him on stage and they all danced along. The winner held his neck up high, head above everyone in the room. A good seed fallen on bad soil.
As lunch approached, the guest of honour had not arrived. I feared that she might not show up at all; which would be a let-down for the children who have not even been priorities in the homes of their birth. Whilst we waited for her arrival, a volunteer talked to the children of the role of their initiative, Thanthwe, a non-profit startup by Sellah Singini, Tionge Kulemeka and Violet Machika. The volunteers seamlessly filled the time with a hip hop freestyle contest, stand-up comedy and poetry recitals. Whilst this was going on, the guest of honour, Hon. Patricia Kaliati entered the room. She apologised for late arrival as there had been a mix-up after the rescheduling of the programme.
Most people know Hon. P. Kaliati as a politician but here in this unmarked building, standing before people too young to vote, she became a mother. Until now, I had not ever been in the same room with the Member of Parliament. As a student, I remembered politicians paying our school a visit to give a speech that had next to no relevance to the audience. The teachers would smile and the students, the ploy of a political photo opportunity, would clap that the speech was finally over. As these recollections were racing through my mental processor, the guest of honour started to speak. She opened by saying “Giving is not about having much but it is about the heart.” She pointed out that most of the children at the Social Rehabilitation Centre and those in the streets of Malawi actually have parents who are still living. She called on the attendants to make the right choice of having the right number of children and to make the commitment to provide sufficient support their children. She called out irresponsible men who plant children everywhere they go and subsequently neglect to meet their basic demands. Of the women, she advised them that bearing a child for a man is not a way of buying the love of the man. To the yet-to-be married youths, she said that marriage is about choosing a great prisoner, someone with whom you can work within the confines of your circumstances to raise a happy family. She said that bearing children irresponsibly does not provide justifiable grounds on which the children should now be sleeping under bridges. She told the children present that God has a plan for their future and welcomed them to take up civic duty in the country in whatever capacity they find befitting should it be as President of the Republic of Malawi or as Members of Parliament. She closed by saying a truth that should be obvious but is not as obvious: God never created a street child.
Lunch was soon served. I met with Mary Malunga, the matron of the Social Rehabilitation Centre, a part of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Community Development. She said that the children coming to the centre were either street children or were referred there as part of the social welfare programmes operating all over Malawi. Sometimes, the children get to the centre before they are even old enough to enrol in primary school. She cited that parental divisions (usually involving a step-parent of the child or grandparents of orphaned children), peer pressure in unconducive environments, and poverty were the primary reasons that drove the children out of their homes and into the streets. The centre also partners with Sweet Aroma; a faith organisation that teaches the children music amongst other things that will help them to integrate in their communities when they eventually check out. They later on performed some songs such as Udolo from their CD.
The lunch itself was special. The children enjoyed a humble Christmas feast. No one went without. The guest of honour actually served the children. They sat on their chairs and ate quietly from their takeaway boxes. I wondered how many of them couldn’t wait for the day when such a meal would be provided at their tables for them to enjoy with their own children in the comfort of their own homes. There was a harmony I don’t usually see between young children and those slightly older than them. There was no sign of bullying. No one was hustling another for an extra piece of chicken. Had the children learned to treat each other as brothers and sisters, looking out for each other’s wellbeing? The guest of honour joined the children and ate with the children; she actually went around the room getting a spoonful from the children’s boxes. The children ate together with the guest of honour.
Reflecting on the event, I realised that I watched a different kind of a Christmas play. The children were not enacting the work of a strange playwright, they were enacting their lives. Last week, I wrote about attending a different kind of Christmas Carols at Gateway Mall. Maybe the world is changing. Maybe Christmas for the young generation is not about getting but rather giving. Watching the young organisers working to organise the event, prepare the food, provide the music; it made me realise that even if Santa doesn’t land on roofs in Malawi, there are many santas in the form of young people who are devoted to improving the condition of those coming after them. The message to those children was that Rudolf the Reindeer is not here but we, your fellow Malawian brothers and sisters, are here for you. There are many stories that tarnish the image of street children; reports of theft, assault and even murder. For myself included, I avoid them where I can. It was safer to avoid them than to understand them. The term “street children” is one that I never examined at length until I spend a day with them. Watching them dance, joke, chat, perform a play, sing, eat as children do all around the world; I had the epiphany that even though they might have no valid residential address, they are just children.
This article has been written in the spirit of #malotoathu.