by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
“Ma’am, pull in here and I’ll watch your car.” A young boy, maybe ten or eleven years old, was dressed in clothes a size too large for his skinny body. He was barefoot, like most of the young people in Africa. We were in South Africa, not too far from Cape Town. If they do have shoes, they are either what we know as flip flops or rubber Crocs. Either shoe can, and does, become a ball to be thrown in street games or batted with a family broom.
I had often thought of my grandkids back in the states with so many toys that they can’t find room to hold them all.
In one neighborhood in Nairobi where we lived briefly, I bought a bag of marbles and gave it to one boy who seemed to be the organizer for all of the children. He took the bag, held it up to the light, felt each marble through the mesh and gave it back to me. I handed it to him again and said, “For you, you and the other kids around here.” He tried not to take it but then finally understood that it was for him. With a smile as wide as the Nile, he squeezed the bag tenderly and walked off. For the next two days, little children would come by and stick out their hands, palm up. Slowly opening their fingers, I could see, sitting in the palm of the dirty little hand, would be a marble, one from the bag of marbles. There were enough marbles so that on our block, each child could own one. Each youngster wanted to show me their treasure and with no English to say anything, their smile said it all.Now this little boy with no shoes and ragged clothes was out with other little boys, trying to get tourists to hire them to watch their cars while they ate a leisurely and expensive dinner in a very safe neighborhood. I slipped five U.S. dollars into his dirty little hand as he was telling us how he would guard our car as long as we needed.
Inside the restaurant, the waitress was guiding us to our table. I mentioned the young man and said, “I hope he does a good job.”
“Oh, he will. We usually never have any problems on this street,“ she said. “He’s only ten but both his parents are dead so he’s raising his four siblings.”
I sat and ate my dinner with a knot in my stomach. At least his siblings knew he was trying. I knew he would probably get some help from either his mother’s or his father’s families, but it would never be enough. For now, what a burden he carried on those thin little shoulders.
Not being able to eat everything on my plate, I took five of the mints on the table and added them to the Styrofoam box with the leftovers and, as we were getting into our safely watched car, I gave him the box and twenty dollars. The smile on his face was good to see, but it could never erase the future from his load.
I think about him often, knowing he was just one of millions all over Africa and other third world countries, trying to do whatever they can to cope with life.