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In June 2022, on Moi Avenue, opposite the Nairobi Archives, the Hilton Hotel behind me, a homeless man stole my phone. The incident stayed with me for a long time, because it started with a friendly conversation and ended with me sans phone and confused, and for months after that (and maybe I still haven’t recovered), I was instinctively hostile to anyone who approached me in the Nairobi CBD with an outstretched hand and a tale of woe and suffering.

But I have not been able to get the destitute of the streets of the city out of my mind, mainly because I cannot escape them, particularly when walking on Moi Avenue, Kenyatta Avenue, City Hall Way and Agha Khan Walk. Outside my preferred church, Holy Family Basilica on City Hall Way, women sit with their children on the pavement, their backs against the church’s perimeter wall, hopeful that Christians fresh from a sanctuary that preaches charity will be touched by (at best) pity or (at worst guilt) and dig into their pockets to deposit a coin or a note in the begging bowl.  

Sometimes I am touched, but my heart has been hardening, and I am not the naïve, well-meaning young man-about-the-CBD that I used to be. I have become more distrustful, but that is not all. I am jaded. I still fill the twinge of guilt when I come across a man or woman or child sitting with a begging bowl, but rarely do I put my hand into my pocket to assist these days. On certain streets of the city, it is guaranteed that a child will emerge from the bustle and hook their arm around mine and request that I buy them a meal. Perhaps because I have over the last few years become accustomed to saying, “si leo” (not today) to these kids, my heart has become hard as stone, and I can walk past the adults with less guilt. 

A few years ago, I regularly gave what I could to street people, burdened by an overwhelming sense of guilt at having the good fortune of being born into a family that could take care of me and put me through school, so that now as an adult I had a job, some cash to spend, food to eat, and a roof over my head. “There but by the grace of God go I,” I told myself as I dug into my pocket.

Before he snatched my phone and disappeared into traffic and the crowds, the thin, deferential man I spoke to told me that street people crave respect, which they rarely get from us, so they feel othered, which can lead to them to take drastic actions against us. He was telling me this, presumably because I had responded to him as I would to a fellow human being, without hostility or fear. Later on, I wondered if he had said that as a ploy to lull me into inattention before he struck, a con. To con someone, you must exploit a vulnerability in their mental framework, infiltrate their minds like a Trojan Horse virus taking over an operating system. In my case, it was a certain desire to have my exceptionality singled out and affirmed. Which he did: you are not like these other people who don’t treat us with dignity, you at least have a heart, etc., etc. 

Still, I felt a certain unease as he confided in me, because I could see the direct connection between the begging and the rising insecurity in the city. A young boy grows up on the street, without prospects, and finally, angry at a society that denies him opportunities to fend for himself, and sunk in helplessness for never having been taught how to exist any other way, he takes up arms against the more privileged inhabitants of the city. Those who drive, who wear good shoes, who eat three meals a day, who have places they call home, who shower every day, who went to school, whose children don’t sleep hungry, who sit in pubs with beer-laden tables, who celebrate birthdays and sing Christmas carols…

It is a vision of terror for the middle and upper classes, that one day the othered classes will rise up against them, tear the roofs off their houses, drag them out in their pyjamas, loot, humiliate, abuse, kill. Everywhere, the rich are afraid of revolution. Scenes of such class-based violence are not unfamiliar in this country, arising every once in a while, masked as post-election violence in 2007 and as coup-induced anarchy in 1982.

But those who are not rich are not immune to such fears either, because there still exists a class below the class at the bottom: the destitute street people. When President William Ruto spoke about the people at the bottom of the pyramid on the campaign trail, he did not have street families in mind, although my new friend, who was soon to turn into a phone thief, told me that he and his fellow street people were planning to vote for Ruto because he had risen from poverty (he was not aware that Prof. George Luchiri Wajackoyah of the Roots Party was in fact a former street boy).

The people at the bottom of the pyramid and the lower-middle-class experience an urgent panic when they see street people for two reasons: one, because they are one crazy hospital bill away from a similar fate; and two, they are wracked with guilt at what feels like privilege, knowing that those who lack what you have can be overcome by resentment and hatred that may ultimately curdle into violence. If the street people were to revolt, who would they turn against if not us? Are we not somehow complicit in their continued suffering? We who vote for leaders who loot and plunder public coffers (which worsens economic conditions and increases destitution), we who engage in bribery and thereby entrench a culture of corruption that pushes the country deeper into a miasma of its own excrement, we who turn our noses up at them and consider them to be collectively a nuisance and an eyesore.

The homeless are a neglected underclass, forgotten by policymakers, ignored by the political class, and tolerated by citizens. Their position in society is almost less than human, denied dignity because of their misfortune, treated with suspicion, feared, hated, rejected, the very people who Christ would be ministering to if he were to come back – just as he embraced them two thousand years ago in Galilee and Judaea. I am self-aware enough to understand that there is something wrong about this picture.

The way I see it, the constant rise in the number of people panhandling in the city and even in our neighbourhoods has everything to do with a mismanaged economy that entrenches inequality in a country where the rich are constantly getting richer while the poor lose even the little that is in their clutches, where healthcare is crazy expensive, where a callous government is ever raising taxes, where unemployment is skyrocketing, and the youth are getting hooked on drugs, gambling, crime and becoming prey to richer, older people who would want to use them for sexual favours in exchange for a few crumbs like a roof over their heads, clothes and food. The homeless are not an alien species, they are us, my god, they are us if the political class continues to indulge in the “it’s our turn to eat” philosophy of governance, they are us if Chapter 6 of the Constitution continues to be disregarded by the voters, the IEBC and the judiciary. The homeless are us but by the grace of God!

But the rot goes beyond economic sabotage by the elites who’ve turned public coffers into feeding troughs, and points to an even more heartbreaking issue: the penetration of capitalism into the very roots of our society today and the disintegration of African value systems. 

I remember how it shocked me when I learned that in my community it was taboo for anyone to sell or barter food, that our ancestors considered it the height of incivility to do such a thing, that cooked food was to be eaten, and so you shared it rather than sold it. You were also not allowed to prevent hungry people from walking into your shamba and eat what they could while in it – but they, the hungry, were prohibited from carrying away any food. Our ancestors would keep two types of granaries, the first type located in the homestead for storing farm produce, and the second type (known as “God’s granary”) located at public cross roads would contain free food for hungry wayfarers to eat their fill before resuming their journey.

Stories such as these, which I’ve heard over and over again, usually followed by the phrase, “We must take the river back to its source” (meaning a return to traditional values), always put me in a state of awe at the social sophistication of our people before the violent arrival of the gun-toting British administrators, missionaries, aristocrats, adventurers and settler farmers. Even then, self-sufficiency was highly prized, as evidenced by proverbs like “begging causes one’s child to sleep hungry” and “another’s ornaments tire the neck”.

One Sunday evening late last year, as dusk swallowed up the city, I was walking from church, lost in thought, and as I neared the intersection of Moi Avenue and Kenyatta Avenue, a young man on crutches approached me with the usual request to buy him food. When I absentmindedly failed to acknowledge him, he forcefully thrust the tip of his crutch against my shin, provoking a sudden outburst of insults from me, before I hurried away, feeling slightly shaken.

Sitting in a fast food restaurant on Moi Avenue a few minutes later, my mind turned over what had just happened, examining it carefully, like a spatula turning over an egg and pressing it until all the yellow goodness is evenly distributed. I knew that this incident, like the previous one with the phone, might have a long-lasting traumatic effect – like becoming afraid to be in the CBD past certain hours, especially on certain streets, fearing mugging – and that it would instil within me an unrelenting phobia of street people that might manifest as hostility.

When I left the restaurant, I went in search of the tall youth with the crutches. He was not where I had left him, but I believed he had to be nearby, and I was right. I called out to him as I approached. The first thing I did was thrust some cash in his hands, which seemed to please him. I asked him why he had assaulted me. Surprisingly, he was effusive in his apologies, warm even. Walking away from him, I was thinking about George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, in which he recounts his experience living among the homeless of London as one of them, and I wondered what I would learn about myself and the world if I were to find myself living in the streets, surviving on the kindness of strangers. You know what, in this economy, in this chaotic timeline since 2020, in this spectre-of-AI kind of world we presently inhabit, in this climate of wars and rumours of war, I do not consider it an impossible outcome.