The heroin gangs in Garubia are seriously violent operations. They operate on the same basic wavelength as I do – there isn’t enough to go around. But instead of creating a tinpot gang of orphaned kids, they determine their membership in a more time-honored way; by family.
It is why my parents’ marriage caused so many problems. You can’t cross the family and you can’t betray the family. Loyalties can’t be allowed to drift.
There is another difference between us, of course. I cut kids loose if they break the rules. They will probably die, but it is not a certainty. The gangs are more straightforward. They kill people. There are no opportunities to try to make it on one’s own. The possibility is removed from their table.
Mumbato is the future of this business. I’ve seen some awful things on the street. Kids starving to death, women prostituting themselves for drugs, men loaded with lead. This kid is no stranger to driving that kind of destruction. I don’t know the exact curriculum, but I imagine that even by the age of 10, he’s killed and tortured men. In a few years, he’d probably get some practice with rape. When he comes of age, Mumbato will be the King of his hill. Everything he’s learned and will learn has been about two things: maintaining his kingship and growing the hill he’s king of.
My curriculum was different.
I didn’t start out the King of any hill. I wasn’t handed my little gang. I simply saw it as my future and seized it. The street kids of Duomba (our city) don’t think more than a day or two into the future. They’d probably love to, but they can’t imagine it.
But I was never quite happy with simple surviving.
In Duomba there are madrassas and missions. They both offer education of a sort. And food. But as with everything else, there isn’t enough to go around. The madrassas seem to have more resources and many a street kid signs up to get food; from their perspective, the education is secondary. The kids who emerge from the madrassas seem very different from those who go in. But while their perspective has changed, I wouldn’t call them educated.
As far as I was concerned, the food would have been nice, but what I really needed was reading, writing and arithmetic. Even as a five-year-old, I could see that those who could calculate came out ahead. It took me longer to realize that those who could record agreements avoided needless fights and those who could account could plan. And those who could read were exposed to a wider world. It is hard to learn what you can and can’t do all by yourself. Slipups in my world result in death. But if you can read about somebody else doing it, then you can avoid some deadly mistakes.
So, I went to the Mission school. I asked them to admit me. But there wasn’t enough to go around, so they turned me away. I came back, time and again but, time and again, there wasn’t enough to go around. The minister who ran the Mission, a South American man named Sabato Barea, was genuinely troubled that he couldn’t help another desperate child.
Finally, one day, I asked Mr. Barea what they didn’t have enough of. ‘Food’ was the first answer. No problem, I said. I could go without. ‘Books’ came next. I could just watch the class. ‘Paper’ was third – I could scrawl in the dirt. Desks, chairs, teacher time – I could do without each of them. I would stand in the back of the room. I would watch and ask no questions. And I would practice outside, in the dirt.
Finally, with a grateful smile, he said ‘yes.’ He had enough for that.
And I began to learn.
I was the most dedicated student there. I knew what I needed, and why. And I wasn’t expecting the Mission to take care of me. Every minute I spent in their little building was a minute I couldn’t spend trying to earn on the street. I worked hard and I learned the skills that would set me apart. Sabato would share cookies with me – sweet Western style oatmeal cookies. They smelled earthy and warm. He also tried to pray with me, to share what he called “time for meditation and peace.” But I didn’t buy into that nonsense. They were selling salvation, but I wasn’t going to be suckered. I only needed education. In time, Sabato said, my dedication had secured me a special grant. I’d be given supplies, a desk and regular lunches.
I learned a lot while at the Mission. Of course, I didn’t just study reading and math. And I didn’t want to live at the Mission itself. I wouldn’t learn enough that way. Unlike those who stayed in their little corner of the warrens – who hid away with what they could understand – I went everywhere in the city. I wanted to learn about my world, not just the world of books. I was a kid pushed around by circumstance and I wanted to be in control.
At this point I wasn’t the head of a gang. There was no gang. Just chaos on the street. But I had a job I could fill. I became a banker and judge of sorts. Other kids would record their debts with me. For some reason, I didn’t want everybody to know I could read and write so I just drew little pictures in my notebook. So and so promised so and so payment of 3 bananas in return for the Okale board he’d provided. I wrote it down in pictures. And all of a sudden, the Okale board could be put to better use – without having to wait for the bananas to be available. The street kids could leverage their assets. And if there was a dispute, they could come to me and I could review their agreement and perhaps return the Okale board to the non-paying party.
I brought two things to the other street kids. Rules, and some sense of the future. After all, what is debt but a requirement to pay – but not today. Not everybody could handle it; but those who did began to see life a little differently.
Most importantly for me, they began to respect me.
And then, one day, I suggested that a group of us join forces. We wouldn’t do anything complex. But we’d do something one street kid on his own couldn’t pull off.
The distract-and-pick is probably the most common sort of street crime. Two people have a fight, the more violent the better. And while everybody else is looking, a pick pocket targets the richest in the crowd and lifts their belongings.
It is a good strategy, as long as people don’t know about it. But anybody in Duomba who’s not a foreigner will instinctively grip their belongings as soon as they see a fight. Most importantly, they’ll keep their eyes out for street kids on the prowl – and they’ll keep their distance.
Pick pockets can sometimes get away with big hauls in this environment, but it isn’t easy. More importantly, in the good parts of town, a pick pocket can be arrested and his team punished on the spot.
My solution to these challenges required a gang, not just a team. We’d pool our resources and buy one nice set of clothes for our best and most respectable-looking pick pocket. It would be something with real brands and no holes. We even bought him shoes, something none of us had. We’d clean that kid up. We’d make him smell not of the warrens, but of soap and cologne.
When we made a scene and people gripped their bags and looked out for the kid doing the lifting, they’d see what they’d expect. One of the other kids, dressed especially poorly, would be prowling around on the other side of whatever confrontation they were witnessing. And so the people far from that kid would relax.
And then our well-dressed lifter would get to work. Nobody would be looking for him. And if the scrawny fake pick pocket got nabbed, he’d have nothing on him. We’d all be safe.
We tried it; it worked – and we quickly made back our money. Respectability went a long way. We’d rob grain stalls, play the shark in Okale games, and pretend to weep at the fate of beggar kids (also from the gang) but mourn that we didn’t have cash (just then) to help them. Before long, we were the best dressed street gang in Duomba.
Throughout, I handled the money. There needed to be rules, clear and consistent rules. There had to be one person responsible for them. And that person was me.
Our gang was growing and thriving, at least from a street kid’s perspective. We were in control. And, although I never let them see it, I am proud that I’ve survived and thrived and that my people have too. They believe in me and I want them to do well because of it.
But now, Mumbato has shown up.
I am King of my hill. But it is a small hill. I guess, in some way, that I want to climb. I want to escape the poverty. But I don’t want to get involved with the heroin gangs. I’m scared of screwing up.
And now, they’ve picked me up and I have no idea why.
Do they consider me a threat, to be eliminated because of my cross-bred blood? Do they want me to do a job? Are they just trying to keep the streets chaotic?
I am thinking about all of this as Mumbato leads me out of the warrens and to the closest street. Once there, he walks up to a Land Rover – an incredibly conspicuous car in a neighborhood where bicycles are a sign of wealth. He opens the front passenger door and I look in. And then, one of his goons sticks a bag over my head. I’ll admit, I’m disappointed. I’ve never been in a car before. If nothing else, I really wanted the chance to enjoy the ride.
The truck takes off and I think about what is happening.
If Mumbato wants me dead, that’s it. I have nothing to stop them, nothing to offer them. If they want a cut of my business there isn’t much to cut. I’d never be able to afford even one of the tires on this truck. But if they do want rent. I’d have no choice but to pay it. I’d hate it, but I’d have to pay it.
I quickly realize that some idiot has decided to leave the windows open. I can’t imagine why. I can’t see, and I have no idea what a car feels like in different places. But I can hear and I can smell everything. The open sewers of the warrens have a very distinct stench. And unlike the roads, they run straight; nobody wants to be near a bend in a sewage ditch. We cross a ditch and I know where we are. We’re heading towards the city center.
Maybe I can get something from the meeting. Maybe I could kill Mumbato’s father – after all, he’d killed mine. Maybe I could strike some sort of alliance. Somehow I doubt it. Street kids can be useful, but I know my place.
The smells outside the car get cleaner and cleaner. Feces are replaced by dust. And dust with soft asphalt. The smell of palm trees becomes more common. With each change in smell, the traffic gets slower and slower. I know the scene well; crowds of cars jammed together with bicycles, motorcycles and cobbled-together vehicles of every description. The cars in particular are moving at an impossibly slow pace. You can walk faster than these cars. I have. But it is definitely classier to drive.
From all directions, I can hear music pumping out of car stereos – people dancing as they pass the time. I know street merchants are moving between the cars offering everything from cooking stoves to cassava yams. We stand out. Our stereo is off. Our car is not filled with dancing people. The street vendors can probably see me, bag over my head – my fellow occupants aren’t even bothering to hide it. They know to stay clear of this particular Land Rover.
We pass a park, the complex scents of jasmine and freshly rained-on grass mixing with palm. And then we enter someplace dark. A garage – with the soft scent of motor oil.
They pull me out of the car and into another. The seats of the second one aren’t leather, they are decaying fabric.
And then we leave the garage. The windows are still open. We leave the city center. We drive past the fish market and the docks. And then we leave the city altogether. I haven’t often gone to the countryside. But the smell of manure and of recently turned dirt is both recognizable and very different from the smells I know.
We drive for a time, with the wind coming through the windows faster and faster. I have no idea where we are, there are only broad strokes of scent. And then we dip back into a city and slow down. I don’t know what city. But it smells like human life and human waste.
And then a particular scent passes my nose – it is earthy and just a bit bitter. A stockpile of cassava root. There are many of those, but not many next to what comes next; the distinct smell of Chinese cooking. Now, I know where we are. We’ve ducked back into Duomba. We aren’t anywhere near my neighborhood. But we are near the apartments the Chinese built for the workers building the new road to Togu. Interestingly, it is nowhere near the Yogula clan’s home neighborhood.
A minute later, we pull into someplace dark. Perhaps another garage.
I gather myself together and get rid of any thoughts of pleasantries. Small-time child gang leaders aren’t yanked off the street by heroin clans to be treated to a royal feast and a promotion.
Especially not the children of parents the clan has troubled to murder.
I smile, sadly.
Perhaps all my education has been for nothing.
The car stops.
Mumbato removes the bag from my head.
One of his goons opens my door.
I step out, totally unready for whatever is coming next.