I can’t say when exactly it started, but I have always had a soft spot for kids living on the streets. Maybe it was my first international mission trip in Dominican Republic when they came up to us with small wooden boxes full of shoe polish and brushes and offered to shine our sandals. Maybe it was even before that, I just know that no matter what city I am in, if it is of any size I tend to be able to spot kids on the street, and they seem to find me as well. My first priority, if language is not a barrier is to talk to them. I feel like sometimes what is needed most of all is gentle, genuine human interaction. That is often what seems to be lacking in their life of being ignored by most passer-byers who either find it awkward to start a conversation or some who even seem to find it insulting that a child reduced to sleeping on the street should ask for a little money that day.
Despite this soft spot, and a tendency to strike up conversation there is something that I rarely do…I don’t ask them what their names are. At least not at first. It is not callousness or a disregard for their identity. It is more from a guess that they have precious little and that what they do have, such as their identity should remain theirs for the keeping. I don’t feel that I have a right, even as an occasional contributor to their livelihood, to any part of them that they are not ready to give themselves. It is on par with the feeling we get when that one over nosy person tends to ask personal questions that you aren’t quite ready to share in a new group such as why you are on your fourth marriage or what is up with that kid of yours. Most of us have a natural reaction to those that seem to think that too much of our lives is their business. I feel like when you live out in the open and most all of your everyday living including washing clothes, bathing, etc. is done around people that you have a right to keep a certain part of yourself to yourself, until you choose to share it. I may not be right in my thinking and I am sure there are people who can say the opposite and that everyone likes to be known by others, that our connection is part of our humanity. And you may be right. However, I know that too often those with perceived power feel like they have a right to set the terms of their interactions and that in the end we often take more away than we give if that is the assumption with which we operate.
A year in to living in Mwanza and I know one name of the roughly 15 kids I interact with on a weekly basis. And for now that is enough. Hopefully as I continue to get to know them they will trust me with more of their stories, but that is up to them.