I’d see the kids most days, hanging around the tap, filling their big plastic bottles then slowly walking home, bare feet, asbestos to the jagged Namibian desert; always smiling, moving, jumping, elbowing. Seeing them made me think about other children, sat in palaces – zombied eyed – thumbs that twit the limbs that move, moving only pixels on a screen.
Each time I saw them, in raggedy play, I tried to keep clear; not that I’m an asshole, it’s just that - being white - I hated always being marked as a cash machine. Judge me if you want, that’s fine.
On the last day, they caught me filling ten big bottles from the tap we shared. They moved in close, close enough to smell: them me, me them, them smelling like I’d smelled many times myself when I’d not washed my clothes for a month or so. It always amazed me how clean and tidy kids were, even in the most difficult of circumstances in Africa; reminded me how working-class kids often have better, cleaner, trendier clothes than the middle classes, with their grubby hand-me-downs. But water is a luxury here, and you could tell.
They moved in closer, not saying anything, just whispering, nudging, little giggling, then up came their little hands, grasping for something I had no intention to give.
In Iraq, convoys once handed out sweets in return for hearts and minds. Soon kids would swarm up into the roads as they came by, and more sweets would be forthcoming, the convoys rumbling approach a signal like an Ice-cream van driving into a council estate. But then the war stepped up ten gears, and everyone seemed to want to shoot at or blow up such convoys, so the convoys didn’t stop anymore, not for anything, and just mowed the kids down until the figured it out: the time for hearts and minds was over.
I gave them a huge bottle of water each to carry to the car, asking them their names, their ages, daft questions adults do when they don’t know what to say, while still ignoring ‘give me money’ hands.
Soon pity whimpers, the way a junkie looks at you, turned to conversation: “Do you want a banana?” I asked, and their heads rocked, turning to the other with glee as I handed them out, black and ready for the bi; fit for the bin in Tescos, fit for a king in the Namib.
“Would you mum like some food?” I asked, and they nodded again, chewing away. I filled a bag with stuff we’d only throw away. It seemed like a treasure to them.
Vanessa walked up and said hello, more whispering.
Then one child, the oldest, lifted up her hand and touched Vanessa’s hair – as a child will do – tangled and wild as the bush.
A Mars Bar bar costs 60p. Were these words worth as much?
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram