About two years ago I had been staying temporarily with a friend in town. I was on my way to her apartment when a woman stopped me. She had a baby on her back and was holding the hand of an adolescent. They were very dirty and thin. She was clearly in distress. In Shona she asked me if I had seen her son Tatenda (which means we are thankful). ”He looks like his brother and is five years old and is holding one shoe”. The moment I said no, she rushed over to the other side of the road and before I knew it she had briefly stopped by a number of people and disappeared. I said a quick prayer for the safe return of her son. I had been speaking with a good friend of mine so when we parted ways, I was quite happy and taking in the early summer sun. My strange and brief encounter was soon forgotten.
My friend at that time was staying in a block of flats at the corner of two major roads where thankfully the traffic lights were working that day. A very smart, clean-shaven and suit-clad young man, was about to cross the road and right behind him was a dirty little child watching him, mimicking his stride from a distance, far enough not to be seen. Instinct kicked in and I ran towards the child and grabbed his hand. In his hand, this child was holding a flip-flop. My mind screamed thank God and ‘oh no!’ at the same time. Thank God I have found the child and ‘oh no!’ what do I do next? ‘Tatenda’, I said to him as gently as I could, ‘your mother is looking for you’. He was frightened, so thin and fragile. I had a few coins in my pocket. I got him Maputi and some fruits. Our journey was about to begin.
I traced back my footsteps asking at every corner around the area where the woman had earlier been looking for her child. Almost everyone I asked remembered the woman but there was no one who could tell me where she had gone. I went into Harare Gardens, a recreational park on the outskirts of the CBD, and inquired at the satellite police booth stationed there. The poor boy’s mother had passed through looking for him earlier. The police refused to take custody of Tatenda and instructed me to leave him at the Fife Avenue police station. As I continued on my way to the Fife Avenue police station, I stopped to inquire with every vendor I could hoping the child’s mother was in close vicinity. She was not. Everyone I asked acknowledged that she had stopped to ask them but for some reason, no one thought she was serious or had taken her seriously.
‘These street children always know the way back to their mothers’
‘If you ask him the direction back home, he will show you.’
I really wanted to scream. We had done that already. The boy said he lived in Joina City Mall which could not be possible, given the heavy presence of security and security measures at the Mall. I was told I was wasting my time and to check my valuables. Someone in another corner even told his ‘boys’ to check out that smart lady holding that shoeless, filthy boy’s hand. The more apathy and indifference I received, the more my heart told me that I needed to leave this child in safe hands. It took me more than two and a half hours to cover four blocks and six roads.
I guess I am sharing this because Zimbabwe is a lot like my experience with Tatenda. His mother loved him. She combed the corners of the CBD looking for this child who had slipped from her hands and was gone in a matter of seconds. In his defence, Tatenda was looking at something. When he looked up. He could not find his mother and he ran in the direction he thought he would find her. It is easy to be orphaned by a system that considers you only as a statistic. It seems to override the warmth of the bosom of your mother, those that love you and the ones you love. One can feel forsaken despite the millions of people a stone throw away. People will see the dirt that life has rolled you in and in one glance, erase the value your loved ones place upon you. The system will never realise that despite their poverty, your loved ones are rich because of you.
Tatenda is just a child. I feel he is a child the system has forgotten by normalising his existence in abject poverty, easier ignored than fixed. I have often asked myself this question. Would people have been kinder if it was my son Anthony, dirty (as boys can perennially be due to daily adventures), and lost? Does my son deserve more kindness because I am not homeless and on the streets? I am ashamed by the answers I will get, not spoken, but acted out. Do the impoverished have less of a right to be loved and protected, even as we look aside and close our eyes, pretending that they do not exist or matter? Every life under the sun matters because it is ordained and sanctioned by God. If we as a nation got this fundamental correct, a lot of mountains will be moved for the better. I saw Tatenda one day and I smiled. For some time I struggled as to why he was so familiar, but my heart leapt when I realised that was him, his mother, brother, and baby sibling by the side of the road. That day, I had finally left Tatenda in the hands of the Fife Avenue police after exhausting all corners I thought we would find his mother.
Initially, the police wanted me to take him to the central police station but I refused. As we made our way to Fife Avenue, I had told everyone I could to tell his mother that I would leave him at the police station there. I had to put my foot down. I as Tatenda’s name suggests, am truly thankful that I can love my family from a roof over my head with washed clothes and a meal I made from scratch, not leftover from someone else’s meal A heart does not hurt any less because it is not backed materially and financially. Shame on us! God bless Tatenda. God bless you.