I consider Simon as my friend. We sort of hang out together each time we bump into each other in town. He's much shorter than me, which of course is explained by the fact that he's much much younger than me. We both live in Zimbabwe so that gives us a lot in common. But Simon practically survives on the streets. Though he doesn't necessarily sleep on the street at night, his life is a life lived on the pavements of Harare's central business district. The last time I met him, which is now a while ago, he wanted some money to buy a school trousers.
Simon and I go back together a number of years. He was not yet of school going age when we met. Now he's grade 3 or 4. So hows life for Simon like? Each time I think about it, I cannot even start to image how it must be for him. He once narrated (still with all the childhood innocence) to me how he got arrested during the days of the clean-up operation. He told me how he had to sneak out and run when he got a chance. That day he had walked from Epworth into town, now, I'm not too good at estimating distances, but it should be at least 10km outside town. Seeing that Simon is probably 8 – 9 years old, you cannot help but ask why?
Simon didn't choose to be on the street. He didn't choose to beg for a living instead of doing what every other 8/9 year old should be doing. I don't even think Simon dreams about what 8/9 year olds are supposed to dream. Simon now knows who is likely to leave him something when he begs. He knows which shops he's not allowed to enter, and which corners of the street are the most 'fertile'. Simon thinks in money. He is my friend. He knows if I have something to give I will give. He knows he doesn't have to ask me to give him money, but each time we hang around together, he'll still try to sweet talk me into giving.
Simon was telling me how life has become tougher now. More and more people have 'taken to the streets' for survival, and its not accommodation that's any issue, it's just more and more people can barely survive without an income. People are now giving less, Simon says. Simon raises his own school fees, and money to feed him, his brother, sister and grandmother from what people are willing to give. So, though Simon doesn't pay any taxes, he's employed and already burdened with responsibilities to look after the family, just like you me, only that Simon is a street beggar by profession and he's 8 years old.
Simon's grandmother by the way, sits at some corner, not really begging, but waiting. She waits for Simon to go round begging and bring all he gets to her 'for safe keeping'. This is a new trend in Harare's street begging tactics. Children are now being (ab)used to beg because, hey, who doesn't feel for the kids? People respond more to kids than adults. So that's why Simon is my friend, that's why he stays on the streets until 9, 10 or even 11pm on school nights. Isn't Simon's future already destroyed? Haven't we already taken away his innocence?
I wonder if Simon can grow up to be a doctor, or a computer geek, with all the iPods, mp3 players, blackberry enabled cellphones and all that stuff? Will he even know such things exist? Will it be his fault when he ends up a thug or in prison? How many children out there are in a situation like Simon's? Surely someone's to blame... who?