The glass bounty hunters of Kenya
Travel Writer: Leone Ganado meets a five-year-old on a quest for treasured goods
Young boys looking a Kenyan dump on fire. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images
I have never been a fan of ginger ale. I’ve always associated it with feeling unwell, because older generations seem to think of it as the remedy to any illness: “Oh you bruised your leg? Dab some ginger ale on it, you’ll be fine”.
Based on this, I am tempted to blame the heat for skewing my perceptions on a dry Kenyan summer day, and for forcing me to shove 60 shillings into the shopkeeper’s hand in exchange for a bottle of his finest Stoney Tangawizi Ginger Ale.
It left a pleasantly spicy aftertaste but it still wasn’t quite to my liking, and after a few more sips and several unwanted stomach ache flashbacks, I decided I’d had enough.
As I walked back towards the compound, I drained the remaining contents of the bottle on the side of the road – I had seen people do this before – and, because Ruiru isn’t known for having any form waste management system, I held onto the empty bottle so that I could throw it away at the compound.
I had almost reached the gates when I young boy ran up to me and gently yanked my hand. He was roughly half my size, wearing a bright pink T-shirt and orange shorts, with a torn running shoe on one foot and dust on the other. He couldn’t have been more older than five.
‘Mzungu!’ he exclaimed. The term had become ingrained in my mind, it was what we were known as. To the Kenyans, I was a mzungu. A white person.
I smiled at the boy, patted him on the back, and took a step towards the gate, but again he yanked my hand. It dawned on me that it was the empty bottle he was after, and I willingly handed it to him.
A toothy grin spread across his face as he clasped it in his hand. “Asante Sana,” he squealed and scurried off. I entered the compound thinking no more of the encounter.
The next morning, as I stumbled half-asleep out of our cabin, I found the same young boy rummaging through the heap of rubbish at the entrance of the compound. I walked over to him and found that he was still holding the empty ginger ale bottle. He looked up at me, cautious at first, and extended his arm to give the bottle back to me. I shook my head and he relaxed.
“What are you doing?” I asked
Without answering, he pulled a half-eaten banana from the rubbish heap, nibbled at the last bit of fruit, and placed the peel on his head. Silent still, he then placed the bottle on the ground and started moving it about.
“Is that a car?”
He nodded his head vigorously. “Car,” he repeated, before pointing at his head. “Hat.” And then he turned back to the rubbish heap, and continued his quest for treasured goods.
I could feel my lips tremble. Just like that, a five-year-old boy had taught me the beauty of simplicity.