I hear chanting. As always, I believe at first it is a dream. Silently, I count to one hundred eight, the number of morning mantras. By twenty-five I know it is morning. Roosters crow now, and orange ribbons of daylight spill over our broken brick wall. Clovis sighs, his tiny hand curled around my finger. I curl myself around my sleeping little brother. Clovis means fighter. My brother lives because he is a fighter. My name, Palesa, means flower, but I will fight, too, for my brother.
Clovis and I are Karamajong, a tribe known for fighting and stealing. Our people are despised and poor. After Mama died, Uncle sent me to the markets to steal. “Don’t come back empty-handed,” He said. Like all good Karamajong, I can steal, but I don’t like to. Once I brought home potato peels and rotten bananas. Uncle was boozing with his friends under the jackalberry tree, long straws curving from each of their mouths to the common boozing pot in the center. He slapped me so hard my eyes swelled shut.
Clovis was always with me in the markets. Some who saw that I carried a baby pretended not to see me steal. One day I was grabbed on each side by two soldiers. Though I quickly gave up my loot, they only grunted heaving Clovis and me into the back of a truck filled with many children. We left Kenya that day. We have not seen Uncle since.
The truck stopped in Jinja and we took to the streets. Having never been to school, I could not count. Now that I can count, though, I think there were one hundred eight of us -the same as the number of morning chants to the Allah god. These chants are heard, if not heeded. We are neither heard nor heeded, but shooed out of the way like rats. In Uganda there are many homeless children. Even potato peels and rotten bananas are scarce.
One day we found Miss Rachel; or she found us. She came looking for us with open arms, asking us our names, gazing into our eyes like we were something special. She began bringing us food, always calling us by name. She told us of Jesus, a Good Shepherd, who knows all of His sheep. He is her shepherd, she told us, and wants to be our Shepherd, too.
Miss Rachel brought posho one afternoon and looked over all who gathered around. “Where’s Lydia? She asked.”
“Lydia is dead,” I told her. “She was so hungry she pulled meat from a dead rat’s mouth and ate it. Then she died.” Miss Rachel cried. She pulled us all to her chest and cried and cried. That is when I first felt the love of the Good Shepherd.
I found a place in the slums for Clovis and I to sleep. One wall of this room has crumbled, but part of a roof still covers our corner. It is a good place to rest until the rains come. Then we hug each other and shiver, waiting for daylight, hoping for the next day’s sunshine. During rainy season we stop hoping for sunshine, and I beg Miss Rachel’s Jesus to stop the rain.
Last May, when the rains ended, Miss Rachel invited us to school! I was afraid of going to school, but she promised us food and took us there in a truck the first day. We had to watch where we were going so we would know how to come back.
School is five kilometers away. Each day now, I carry Clovis along the red, dusty road, dodging motorbikes and boda bodas. My feet are calloused and tough. Still, I wish sometimes for a pair of shoes.
At school we sing and pray to the living God. Then we drink a big cup of porridge. I smile, watching as Clovis slurps and licks the drips off his chin. He naps in my lap during morning classes. I listen carefully, doing my best to learn and understand. At noonday, after baths, we eat a bowl of rice, sometimes wearing our gift of fresh, new clothes. Then, under the warm afternoon sun I run, and laugh, and play. And for a little while I feel like a girl of ten.
Author’s note: While Palesa is a fictional character, her story could be that of thousands of street orphans currently living in Uganda. For most of us, such an existence is difficult, even painful to imagine. For children like Palesa it is the only childhood they have ever known.
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