Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Girl on Walnut Street

A few blocks from my apartment building, a one-time warehouse whose rugged exterior belies its inner beauty, a pedestrian is likely to see what looks like a human shape rolled into a denim-covered ball. This coil, lying next to a dirty backpack and cigarette butts, is probably replicated in many parts of Kansas City, but there's something quite unusual about this homeless person. Until i got to see her face -- girl's smile, woman's comportment, cigarette in hand -- i had no interest in writing about a person who reminds me of where i come from, a place where panhandlers and beggars rule the streets. Until i got to see her face, pale and gaunt, i didn't care.

Now, because i get to see her almost everyday, the girl on Walnut Street intrigues me in a way no beggar has managed. And, coming from Kampala, where city authorities have to arrange nightly raids to sweep itinerant kids and women off the streets, i have seen many beggars. Very many. A good number have asked me for money, some of them very aggressively. But, informed by conventional wisdom that being generous with beggars encourages them to stay on the streets instead of going back home where they might have a decent place, i tend to shrug off importunate requests. The beggars i saw in Columbia, where i spent at least two weeks before coming to Kansas City, usually asked me for a cigarette, and the beggars i've encountered in Kansas City wanted money they would use to travel on a bus. They all looked fit and healthy, much like the Kampala beggars whose stock in trade is fooling wimpy Ugandans. They never have luck with me.

But the girl on Walnut Street does not ask for anything. In fact, she does not seem to be asking for anything. The rare beggar who attracts you even in her sleep, she is the kind of homeless person that most Africans cannot imagine would be a fixture on a street in a metropolis as modern as Kansas City. The image of America, in the mind of the typical African, is that of a place full of glory and wonder -- a veritable Garden of Eden. Even among educated Ugandans, some of whom i call friends, the idea of homeless Americans does not make much sense. Even worse, some of them don't imagine that people here, as elsewhere in the world, wake up thinking about how to keep their jobs, how to survive. This perverted perception is the reason they keep asking their African friends who live in America if they are foolish enough to consider returning home. It's the reason i keep repeating myself when dealing with them: Give me a break!


  1. I'll talk to her -- trying to find the best opportunity.