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Published: August 4th 2013
‘This iss one off our boys...’ presented John Bull as we climbed down from the motorbike taxi, ‘hee goes bye da nickname Moneh Man’. At which point a small boy crept out from behind John, head down and his bony hand out to greet me with the traditional shake and finger snap. The bustle of West Point market surrounded our short introduction before Money Man (real name Winnie, he later told me) led the way through the crowd to the edge of the swamp where a short plank of wood laid the path around the back of the end building. Once around the corner and my flip-flopped toes were well and truly marinated in swamp juice, we found a couple of corrugated tin shacks providing shelter to a handful of teenagers and guys in their 20s. Here we met the tall 15 year old Emmanuel, dressed in filthy holey clothes and a pink wool ski hat, who greeted John Bull like family and with a hearty smile. Winnie was guiding us to all of the hideouts, corners, gambling and glue sniffing spots and sleeping places of whilst introducing us to the kids currently registered with the new Street Child project in
the largest slum in Monrovia.
10 year old Winnie is famous throughout the packed West Point Markets and affectionately (although quite tragically and ironically) known as ‘Money Man’. His nickname came from always living on the streets around that area and being notorious for his stealing antics, having stolen something from most people at some point. We saw the evidence of this as we bumped into a recent victim of his in an alley between two rusty tin shacks in the middle of the maze of where they call home. Amazingly, whist holding a tiny baby, the disgruntled man was still able to take a swing for Winnie, when just in time, our Project Coordinator John rapidly stepped between them to protect him. He was an excellent mediator and defused the situation quickly and calmly by explaining what we are doing to help Winnie and the other street children. ‘If you beat him, he will not learn, you will destroy him’ he said in a Gadalf the Grey type fashion, ‘let us continue to work with him, teach him right from wrong so that he may get an education and get out of this place. They are the future
and they need our support to better themselves’. And with that, the man heartily agreed with John nodding, ‘you speak the truth’ and we were able to continue our search for the other hideouts.
Mark and I were with John and 3 of the new Street Child volunteer social workers when we started meandering back through the West Point market. It was a field day for the senses and each one was on high alert as we very aware that we were a main attraction without meaning to be. Walking single file through the narrow winding alleyways between the rusty tin shacks, we ducked to avoid jagged shards of metal or wood threatening to claim an eye or at least a scratch of blood and were hopping not-so-gracefully over trickling streams of putrid liquid. Every 20 or so steps it was like having a change of channel and your head and lungs were filled with a new smell, each as sickening as the last accompanied by a slight change of taste at the back of the throat. There were unidentified cries and bangs from every direction mixed with the sound of pots and pans, bubbling stews and caged chickens
stacked haphazardly and squawking in rebellion against their captors. Many of the women were selling potato leaves in bundles or cooking rice with a small child strapped to their back and this is the first time I’ve seen fist-sized African snails for sale, which might need to be experimented with on a slightly calmer day.
Around every corner there was a different group of kids huddled together in the dull light not doing anything in particular, just sitting and waiting for nothing. With each greeting I received a very different impression of each child; some didn’t shake, they just held or felt to brush your hand lightly and others grabbed, shook vigorously and wouldn’t let go until they finished what they had to say. Each time I took my hand back, it had gained another layer of something different; sometimes wet, sometimes dry, dusted with sand or dirt and other things I’d prefer not to look at under a microscope. It doesn’t discourage you though and I wanted to greet and talk to all of them.
So many children today and all wanted to hold our hands or walk along arm in arm with us, not to talk
or say anything in particular, just to call you their own for a short time. All were living on the streets, alone, hungry, with no adult authority, many would stay with an older kid for supervision who is too doped up to take care of them and who will beat the little ones who don’t steal for them. Many of the children stick together for survival, they have to. There is nobody else. No matter what age they are, some are high on drugs; many are depressed or abusing each other to try to forget what they have been through. It shouldn’t be like this. Spending a few hours one afternoon walking through West Point Beach, the largest slum in Monrovia was a very sobering experience and one I won’t be likely to forget for a long time to come.
We heard some horrific stories from the children. The 100 who have been identified as being the most vulnerable, living even below the lowest possible rung and still surviving with whatever they can find. There are hundreds more just in this slum alone however the funds have to be raised before we are able to reach them. Some of
them cried and some were too traumatised or embarrassed to talk to probably the only 2 white people they’d seen in a long time, if ever, strolling around their swamp.
Along our journey, we encountered probably around 30 or so of our beneficiaries and we found another small boy who was 8 years old, who had a particularly sad story. His parents had both been killed and he had made his own way across the whole country to get to Monrovia, where John had found him completely alone and sleeping under an overturned fishing boat every night. Street Child provided clothing for him and has temporarily placed him under the care of a local family with an allowance for keeping him. The volunteers also gave him some shoes the previous week, which were stolen the night before whilst he was sleeping. They might roll together but when it comes to survival and possession, it seems to be everybody for themselves, which you can hardly be surprised about when they have never been shown any different. There is much debate about whether to relocate this boy back to his village because if we do, not only will he be living with extended family but we also couldn’t continue our care for him there as we are currently only able to function in the capital. It’s a tough one and John is still looking into the specific circumstances of his case to come to an informed position.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom however, some children were able to smile and laugh with us, especially the ones who John Bull had befriended and set back with their families already in the short space of a few weeks. These children now have some hope and when they see him coming, it brightens their day; these ones will be enrolled in school, some for the first time ever in September. They welcomed Mark and I as their ‘respectful’ Auntie and Uncle and thanked us for helping John to help them and their friends. The social worker volunteers must have previously promised to bring them all a football and they’ll never let them forget it. The kids were jumping around excited at the prospect and we left with the promise that they would have one by the time the week is out and their mission was to create their teams and come up with a team name.
On Saturday we plan head back to West Point, back to the small place where 40,000 Liberians live in pain and fear in the dark and damp tin city and we will be armed with one simple weapon. One that will be sure to bring smiles to the children’s faces and give them something positive allowing them to forget their lives for a while and aim higher for a life they deserve: a football.
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