Review by Dr Marie Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig
‘So how do we survive?
How can we bring light into a world that seems only dark?
By sharing stories, by sharing experiences’
Samantha Richards (‘We Are Somebody’)
‘I may be orphaned, or on the street, but I Am Somebody’
(Abdallah, ‘I May Be’)
‘They slaughtered our parents,
What did I do wrong to suffer so?’
(Ronalyn, ‘Battles of the Drug War’)
‘Why can’t the world come together in peace
And all racism, hatred and war be ceased?’
These are the voices and verses of street children. Their stories of hardship and trauma, their dreams and hopes. When, if ever, have you read about them before? Let me hasten a guess: never, or maybe rarely? Because most of the time,street-connected young people are marginalized, exploited,abused – simply ignored. Countering this systemic neglect are charities such as Street Child United which organises ‘international sport events for street children to change the way young people like them are seen and treated across the globe’.
In association with SCU and to support its work, Fly on the Wall Press have now published a poetry anthology with a difference: We Are All Somebody gives centre stage to texts and artwork created by street children from a range of countries, including Bangladesh, India, Tanzania, the Philippines, and many more. The anthology was compiled by Samantha Richards, a Young Leader for Street Child United. 30% of sales profits go to the charity.
Prefacing the poems and drawings are the photographs and declarations of different Street Child World Cup teams, in which they ask people, and in particular the governments of their countries for respect and the granting of basic rights: for instance, to provide them with a legal identity, give them access to education and healthcare, protect them from harm.
The verses reiterate some of these demands in their own, poetic language. They also allow us small glimpses of what it means to live on the streets: how hard it can be, how lonely, how harmful. Yet we also read about the consoling effects of religious faith and bonds of solidarity among peers, forged byshared suffering, which can sustain street children:
‘On the street I am scorned, blamed, used and abused.
Except by those who share my destiny –‘
(Gladys, ‘The Story of a Street Child’)
Of course, in this battle for survival, this ‘great war’, as Opeyemi calls it in their poem ‘Hope for the future’, there are also older children who will steal from younger ones:
‘I lived alone.
I slept in waste bins.
Big boys stole my money.’
(Ugochukw, ‘From the streets, to home’)
Exacerbating issues, such as drug wars, gun violence, racism, impotent and/or corrupt governments, and more recently the impact of Covid-19, are also highlighted. Another theme is gender inequality, and with regard to that, the standout poem is Nisha’s ‘A Girl’:
She doesn’t live her life for herself,
but for others.’
But despite, or because, of the difficult situations the authors face, their writing is very much a testament to their resilience, defiance, courage, ambition, and their determination to speak up for themselves, to be heard, and to change things:
‘We are all equal.
Don’t lose hope: one day, we’ll be one.’
(Karina, ‘We Are All One’)
Hope is not only a word that comes up in the poems, there are also glimmers of it being realized: the example of Manoj More, whose imaginative artwork is included in the anthology, shows how with help (in his case from the Salaam Baalak Trust Mumbai) a boy living on the streets was able torealize his artistic potential and is now studying to become an architect.
The collection is inevitably political: not only due to the topics the authors write about, but also because of their determination to try and change their situation for the better. Not least because of that, it would be wrong to measure the book with the same yardstick one would ordinarily apply to a poetry anthology. Also: the authors may not be professional writers but what they write about matters. Their texts drive home with utmost clarity that we live in a world of crass differences between rich and poor, and that most countries on this planet are still a long way away from providing all of their citizens with basic rights, decent living conditions, and equal opportunities.
We Are All Somebody reminds us of the humanity and urgent need one of the most disadvantaged social groups worldwide. The book’s title is also its motto and underlines a simple, yet fundamentally important statement we should all take to heart: ‘I am a child like any other’ (Gladys, ‘The Story of a Street Child’).