A recent 30-minute video about Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army has captured the world’s collective imagination. Meanwhile, as more and more people learn about the plight of Uganda’s and Eastern Congo’s real “invisible children,” I’m off to continue my daily ritual—to speak with kids who call the streets of Kampala their home.
It’s late afternoon, and the shadows of the buildings are growing taller. The drivers on the road are hustling to beat the rush-hour traffic. On the fence surrounding the new Mukwano Shopping Mall, a boy rolls his bicycle tire towards me. He is wearing a pair of heavy boots without shoelaces, and a pair of shorts that looks more rusty than dirty. The right sleeve of his t-shirt is rolled up, exposing his undersized biceps. In his other hand, he’s holding a crushed mineral water bottle that he’s using to push his tire.
“What’s going on here…what’s going on here?” he asks as he fast approaches me and another young comrade who makes his home in the streets.
“Do they want to arrest you?” he continues, using heavy street slang, as he brings his tire to a stop. After a few greetings mixed with explanations, he sits on a heap of soil besides me, arms resting on his knees.
“My name is Matthew Abonga. I’m 13 years old and originally from Gulu,” he tells me in a strong voice, while pointing in the direction of Gulu as if it was situated right on the horizon.
“Why am I out here? I ran away from home because my parents were beating me a lot,” he says. “The government should tell these parents that when you‘re beating a child, don’t use a lot of energy. You beat them slowly…slowly,” he says in a measured tone as he administers imaginary slaps.
His voice gets even lower as he opines on life on the streets: “But even these kids, they should listen to the adults. The reason people don’t like us is because what these other kids do.”
Counting with his fingers, he starts outlining his view on why kids on the street incur more acrimony than sympathy. “Some of the kids take drugs; that’s very bad.” The counting continues. “Others pick-pocket people. Others snatch people’s bags, especially [off of] ladies. Even these police hate us. See over there? That’s where I usually sleep, and I see it all the time. Whenever the police arrests street kids, they whip them, check their pockets, and call them thieves. But we’re just trying to survive.”
By now, his agitation gives way to street swagger: “But I’m too sharp for the police; they can’t get me. If they chase me, I just run and jump into a drainage tunnel, which is so small they can’t follow me. Then I just disappear.”
It’s time to go, and Matthew wastes no time hitting the streets again. Fist-bumps acknowledge our mutual understanding that our paths will cross again.
They are kids (dogo = small) on the streets of Kampala (“Kla”), Uganda. They’re invisible to most; but this is their Twitter diary, @Kladago, written by Kampala-based journalist Hillary Muheebwa (@MuheebwaH) and sponsored by AddisTunes.com (@AddisTunes).