People who see Patrick Bilungi picking dustbins and call him a thief really upset him.
‘I tried to steal a watch in the market once,’ he says, recalling his short, unsuccessful criminal career, ‘but they caught me and beat me very badly.’
Fourteen-year-old Patrick came to Kampala a year ago. His father had died when he was very young and his mother left for another district. In Uganda uncles are cultural inheritors of a brother’s children. But Patrick did not care for this particular uncle’s treatment.
‘If I had had the chance to go to school, I would have thought of some other way to earn. Now? At the moment I have no alternative.’
Photo by ELAINE ELIAH
From across the street, Patrick can be seen examining a plastic bag. He carefully covers his picking hand, with its chipped red nail polish, and begins. The bins he picks are also popular with Marabou storks. Kampala City Council last year ignored the birds’ protected species status, and poisoned bins to reduce populations of the meter-high scavenging birds. No-one ever reported if human scavengers were adversely affected.
After finishing work, Patrick uses his ‘Evian’ bottle – mineral water that would cost him three days’ wages to buy – to wash his hands and his face.
Sleeping under a churchyard tree, Patrick sometimes earns extra money emptying the church’s trash. He watches their building renovations and dreams of more meaningful employment.
‘Like the people painting the church. I would like to do that. Or building. I would like to learn how to build.’
Plastic bottles are his primary wage earner. Though they yield less than $1 per day, streetwise Patrick knows where to find a 25-cent meal and sweet ginger tea for 10 cents. As we sip tea together, scribbling notes keeps me from noticing Patrick sharing his cup with another boy who has appeared from nowhere. When I look up, they are both smiling.
Elaine Eliah in Kampala.
© Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997
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