I see him grinning shyly from underneath his dingy cap as soon as I get to
the workshop. It's before seven and I really thought I'd be the first one
in, but Yabuku beat me to it. 'Hey, how are you?' 'Fine,' he answers softly.
'Can I take a shower, please?' 'Of course, come in.' I can see his pockets
bulging with things that have no value to me, but to him are priceless
treasures. I carefully take of his cap -a different one every day, depending
on what he managed to get a hold of in the streets- and hold it out to him,
smiling encouragingly. He reluctantly lets go of his treasures for a couple
of minutes by putting them in his cap one by one, so he can take a bucket
shower at the workshop. I notice empty instant coffee sachets that still
smell of coffee if you take a good whiff, a bolt, a broken strap from a
wrist watch, a photograph of a child, a spoon, a CD... Yuck! A dead mouse.
Bottle caps, keys, a razor blade... and many more things. When Sakpalana,
our colleague, arrives, Yabuku gets some help with washing and brushing his
teeth. He doesn't know how to do that properly. Hamdia collects the dirty
clothes she'll be washing for him today and I take out the clothes he left
with us yesterday, all nice and clean again now. After a while, Yakubu
enters the workshop, squeaky clean, and I see him sniff his clean shirt,
well pleased. After taking a long time to choose, he puts the most important
treasures back in his pockets, leaving the rest behind with a sigh. He comes
to sit with us and we give him some food or some money to buy food himself.
Sometimes he asks if he can sleep a while after having eaten. On those days,
he contentedly rolls out his mat on the veranda, where he can rest for
hours, his cap pulled down over his eyes. Today, however, he disappears
after a while to spend another day and night straying, begging and foraging
for new treasures and food. And every day you see him go, you hope he'll be
back the next day. Yabuku: a very special young man.
It may seem like we're terribly busy, day in, day out, just with producing
all those popular items we make, but our workshop has over the past few
years -unintentionally but to our pleasure- turned out to be a spot where
much more takes place. Of course it's wonderful that we handed our 25.000th
item to a child this month. But the social function that our workshop has
slowly started to fulfil in this neighbourhood is just as satisfying. In
addition to producing things, contributing something to the environment and
educating people, is great to also be able to do something for those of us
who seem to always miss the boat and to meet ordinary, special people.
Take 13-year-old Sharif. He's been coming in every morning from that one
time he came to hand in sachets for a school bag. Haruna knew him and
immediately sat him down on a stool next to him. Sharif immediately started
to help by untying the pieces of string, rubber bands and strips of cloth
children use to tie the sachets together in bundles of ten. This isn't easy
for him, because Sharif is very spastic. That also affects his ability to
speak, so he can't go to school. In the mornings, he helps Haruna or enjoys
himself by playing with the toy building blocks. At lunchtime, he returns
home to play with his brothers and friends, who have then returned from
school. It makes him happy if Lizzy's there, because she's his great friend.
He can sit next to her for hours on end, handing her the sachets one by one,
with great concentration and effort. What a beautiful kid!
Rahama comes in irregularly. Sometimes we see her daily, sometimes we don't
hear from her for weeks and we're very happy when she suddenly turns up
again. Rahama also likes to take a shower when she comes in, and to put
lovely, rich cream on her dry and dull skin. She, too, has a bundle of clean
clothes stored away with us so it only takes her a while to come and sit
down with us all freshed up and clean again. She usually manages to get
enough money begging to buy a nice breakfast, and after that all she really
wants to do is sleep: somewhere she's not disturbed, she doesn't have to
respond to everything and she's not harassed. Life can be hard for a teenage
girl with a mental handicap out on the streets... We roll out a mat for her
on the veranda, she chooses a doll to keep her company and she's fast asleep
in no time.
In the beginning, when Haruna just started working with us and Gafaru
-another boy with Down's syndrome- walked past, our workers told Haruna his
'brother' was coming. Haruna would then shout at Gafaru and call him names,
so Gafaru would run away scared and all the workers had great fun. This is
often how people here still respond to those who are different. You joke
about them, make them look bad and have fun doing it. It took a while before
everyone in the workshop realised there is another way, too. Gafaru dares to
come in now, and he can be at ease. He plays with the other kids at the
veranda, drives around on the tractor and sometimes Haruna even allows him
to sit with him, and they work together for a while. It takes your breath
away to watch it.
A group of children from the 'Special School' faithfully drops by every day
on their way home from school, just to say hello and tell us the news of the
day. Our trainees assure us they really will be coming in to work again on
Saturday. Because it's not easy for these kids to count and collect water
sachets, they simply pick up all the sachets they find on their way from
school to the workshop. We count them together and add the amount to the
special list we keep for them. It works really well and they have already
saved up for quite a number of items, this way.
Another wonderful moment is when Miss Lydia comes by. She 's a very engaged
teacher from one of the outer suburbs. She stumbled across our workshop once
and was fascinated by what we do. She took several items with her to show to
her pupils. She showed the whole school and created an assembly point for
the kids to drop off their sachets. Every once in a while, she comes by on a
moped loaded with thousand of sachets to exchange them for beautiful
products. The other day, she had two pupils and two teachers coming with her
in a taxi. She wanted them to know about this place in case she would ever
be unable to come. She didn't want the beautiful exchange between her school
and Tuma-Viela to be entirely dependent on her. I'm so glad they exist:
wonderful people who make a difference.
There was a blind man the other day, with 500 sachets for a raincoat. We got
talking and he told me he had always worked as a teacher. He worked at a
school out in the bush, near a river, and contracted river blindness. He
hasn't been able to see at all for ten years now, he can't work anymore and
sits at home twiddling his thumbs. Just at that moment, Hamdia started one
of her many lessons of that day in the classroom and I invited the man to
join her. Before long, he took over with a flair and enthusiasm that was
highly contagious. It was obvious he was so happy to have children around
him again that the teacher in him surfaced immediately. We suddenly heard
kids clapping their hands and repeating full sentences in English after him.
A special guest giving a wonderful, spontaneous guest lesson.
And then there's Takoro, visiting the workshop almost daily... And many
more. There are so many remarkable moments to a day.
Receiving so many different visitors is great, but going out to visit
someone yourself is wonderful too. I'll be visiting my mother at the end of
this month, together with Lizzy and Faruk. We have been preparing for the
trip for over a year now, and it's finally going to happen. It will also
give us the chance to lobby for Tuma Viela and hopefully we'll be able to
tell everyone we can keep on going when we'll return after eight weeks. To
continue working hard and providing a home to whoever crosses our path.