The cardboard mound is eerily pale in the early morning light. It looks sepulchral. It isn’t there by chance. It is the night’s shelter for a young man, a boy really. People ask how old he is. Fifteen. Maybe. It is hard to tell age in Africa, especially for these young ones.
Depravation stunts their growth, so twelve-year-olds look no older than eight. He could be twenty. But he looks mid-teens. He is a sad youngster. Life has robbed him of all joy and bracketed him in despair. Not even the raucous, drug induced hilarity of other street dwellers can make him smile. If he gets a smoke, he draws on it with studied pre-occupation, glaring at it as he inhales deeply.
For the rest he sits on the edge of the pavement, his focus inward. At times he finds bottles and breaks them. He uses the pieces of glass to shave his skin, slowly, deliberately sweeping the chips down first one leg, and then the other. Red stripes appear in places. He strokes through them. His arms are black with the scars of deeper cuts.
Each day I worry that he has died in the night in his coffin of cardboard. Each day I thank God when I catch sight of him. I have spoken to many people, but no one seems able to offer any solution or help for this boy. I know his name, and where he is from. He claims to have forgotten his surname.
I wonder what atrocities were perpetrated on this young soul to bring him to this place of bleak and hideous despair. More than that, I wonder what my role must be, what is the best help for him? I fear putting him into a system that might harm him more, but leaving him to the mercy of the elements seems equally cruel even if it is his choice. Reaching him will take time and patience, and wisdom.
People warn me against getting involved, believing he will attack me. He won’t. I have given him a wrap for the nights, and food. He said ‘Thank you’. I trust that the Lord has put him in my path for a reason, and it is about him, not me. I hear the words of my Saviour reminding me that whatever I do for the least of these, I do for Him.
This past Saturday night for the first time in many weeks, he did not come ‘home’. I worried all through the weekend. I mentioned his absence to an employee on Monday. He said he had seen people talking to him, together with the police. Maybe, just maybe, he has found proper shelter.
Later I saw him walking past. He had a haircut, but his left arm was pressed into his side in an odd manner. Again he slept elsewhere. Yesterday he was back. His dejection seemed more intense.
I went to him. “How are you?” he won’t answer. He doesn’t have to. The depth of misery in his eyes, the imperceptible shake of his head say more than words.
On the pole next to us are two billboards. One says “Fight back!” I think that’s the translation. The other says “Protect our Borders”. We have elections soon. how I wish there was a sign that says “We Care” and then shows that they do.
Shortly after I left him a man walking past began to harangue my boy. I went out but he left before I could stop him. The boy went and hid himself under his pieces of cardboard although the sun was still shining.
The pile has not moved. I am scared. I want to pray that he is still alive, but a little voice says ‘Why? Why would you want this life for anyone?’