My name is Derek and I was born in Kitale, Kenya. When I was around 4 years of age I realized that home was not a safe place for me so I walked into town to see if I could have a better life there. My mother had abandoned my brother and I as babies and we were living with extended family that didn’t have the capacity to care for us. I knew I had to find a better life for us if we were to survive. I lived on the streets for over a year and made many friends with the other street boys that lived there with me. Some of them were nice to me, and some of them weren’t. Life on the streets was hard but friends made it better. I had a friend named John Pokot. He was a few years older and had lived on the streets much longer than me so he showed me how to survive on the streets.
One day when I was about 5 and a half, John and I went to a church that had missionaries visiting from America. They were feeding kids, getting them medical care and helping them clean up from the streets. I met my new family that day. My parents asked John and I if we wanted to get off of the streets and find a safe place to stay. We agreed we did and we were taken to an orphanage together.
I remember the orphanage having lots of older boys so again John had to help look out for me. John was pretty resourceful and had lived on the streets a long time. The church my parents were with sent a large donation of athletic shoes for the boys at he orphanage. John realized these shoes would bring him a lot of money if he could sell them on the streets. So that is exactly what he did. Unfortunately, he had to steal them from all the boys at the orphanage before he could sell them. John was kicked out of the orphanage and I was left alone again.
I was soon adopted and brought to America. I have had a wonderful life here filled with many amazing opportunities and a large circle of loving family and friends. I have often wondered about John and how he might be doing… if he ever got to play ball, or go to school, or even just have a meal with a family.
Over the years my family made many trips back to Kitale, Kenya. On each trip they looked for John and tried to get him to leave the streets. He tried a few times, going to a group home and a few programs for street kids. Every time, though, the lure of the glue that he sniffed to numb his pain and despair called him back to the streets. Each trip saw John growing older and less able to function.
The year I turned 16, I had the amazing opportunity to go back to Kenya. This was an incredible trip where I was able to visit the streets I had lived on as a small child. I was also able to find John on this trip. I remember holding him so tight when we said goodbye because I knew it would be a long time before I would get the chance to see him again. John looked thin and scared and beat up by his life. I even noticed that half of his ear was missing. His eyes were hollow and haunting. I will never forget my time with John on that trip. He broke my heart and I’m still trying to figure out how to put it all back together. I have rarely cried about the hard circumstances of my early life, but when I left John that day I cried hard tears for him and all the boys like him still living on the streets.
My parents were able to go back to Kenya last month and as usual they began looking for John when they got to Kitale. As they asked around the street boys they soon learned that John had died. The grueling task of simply staying alive on the streets of Africa were just too much after all these years. The glue, the alcohol, the hunger, the disease, the loneliness, the pain of his simple existence finally took John’s life. We don’t even know for sure how old he was when he died. We only know it had been over 12 years since my parents found him living on the street with me.
Psychologist talk about something called “survivor guilt,” and I have learned to know it in the deepest places of my heart and soul. I look at the life I was given and the life John had and I don’t know what to do with all the questions and feelings that arise. As I ponder these questions and compare the lives of two young boys from the streets of Kenya, I can only come to one conclusion. There is only one reason that my life turned out so different from John’s. I was given a family. A family that not only met my physical needs but also helped me heal the deep broken pieces of my past. I can’t help but wonder what John’s life could have been like if he had been given the opportunity to live in a family too. We will never know now because John is gone.