I always try to hold my pee until I go home. Not just in Cairo, but in London, in Germany, in the USA, wherever I am. I have this feeling that my pee needs to pass somewhere clean, somewhere, where I know the people who own the pee that passed before mine. Yes, sometimes that meant bouncing between legs, jumping up and down holding it in. It also meant at times a few drops would escape betraying my control. That didn’t matter, because at home, there was a clean shower next to the toilet and laundry basket and clean clothes. It’s because of this, pretentious need, that I had not had to use any of the shelter toilets till that day.
I had developed a urinary tract infection while I was in Cairo and holding in my pee was more difficult than usual and so, in the spirit of sharing the experience, being the “real” participant observer I was trying to be at the shelter, I excused myself to use the toilet. I knew where it was because I had stood outside it once trying to calm a girl who was self harming inside, trying, along with others to reassure her she was loved. It didn’t smell, but it was dirty, everything was broken, the tiles, the mirror, the toilet seat and there were drops of blood on the sink and the walls. As soon as I closed the door, I gagged. The cockroaches that scurried in such a hurry from between the hinges, or where ever it was they were coming from made me gag. I hold cockroaches, I gently place them outdoors when I see a someone holding a slipper to attack one, so don’t get me wrong, reader; I wasn’t gagging because I was scared of spiders. I gagged because the blood, the cockroaches and the broken everything where the shelter that the children ran to – what then, I wonder, of the circumstance that they were running from?
It was in Germany, while on an exchange programme that I was invited to a shelter for girls and young women. This safe haven was set up for them to escape the violence of the neighbourhood in which they lived. The vibrant colours were so welcoming, I was deciding on taking a few ideas for my future study one day. The smell of baked cookies warmed the air, the pot of tea, the ceremony of opening a library upstairs that a 12 year old had been guided and encouraged to open for the other girls; all so inspiring. I felt so happy and optimistic and prayed so hard one day I would walk into somewhere like this for our girls in Egypt. But when I went into their bathroom to wipe some of the milk that I had spilt on my top, I closed the door behind me and I cried. By the wall, there was a hanging toiletries bag with three types of sanitary towels and tampons. There were posters on the back of the door about female hygiene and numbers the young women could call anonymously if they had any questions or just wanted to talk about the changes that were happening to their bodies as they were growing up. And as my friends had so many dreams for Egypt, to fight for freedoms and rights, I was in a bathroom praying for period pads for the girls I had grown to love.
I remembered the first time I had retracted from my decision not to give money to the shelter. I dug into my bag on an impulse and gave Sarah 100LE and told her to go and get as many pampers for the babies as the money could get her. I am amazed at how judgemental and naïve I was when I first arrived to the shelter. I had such a fixed idea of how things should be run that I got so angry at everyone so quickly not realising the repercussions if things were to be done the way I thought they should be. This was one of those times. I had given the money in anger at hearing that nappies for the babies were rationed to 2 nappies a day. I found this out when I asked the child mothers what they needed from the pharmacy and they all, without exception asked for nappy rash cream. I started a pompous talk about hygiene and how they should wash and change the babies often and it was then they told me that they would, if they could. But later I found out that the reason the nappies are rationed is because the mothers, also children themselves, use them for their periods.
The day I needed to use the toilet at the shelter, I had just finished talking to one of the girls that I later found out was pregnant. I hadn’t realised it then, but I guess she was trying to get advice from me on how to abort a baby without having to go to a doctor, or dying. During this conversation she told me how one of her friends trying to abort a baby that she’d conceived after a gang rape fell very ill after drinking 25 bottles of castor oil as suggested by the street leader. She also recounted how one of her friends on the street had died because she had been advised to remove the foetus with a metal hanger via her vagina. According to her, the hanger went past her tummy and grabbed her soul instead and she bled to death. All the girls and boys that were around her ran away because they were scared the police would think they killed her. Was it the cockroaches that made me gag? I sat on the toilet seat, my body losing more fluid than just the pee, I cried for the things that we don’t notice and the needs that we can fulfil but don’t even know we can because we are so acutely unaware of what needs doing.
I am not writing to change the world or to inspire big changes, but to talk about the small changes that create an amazing ripple affect. How many people, who are good enough to think of the trials of street children, or their resilience, think beyond finding ways to raise money for shelter, food and clothes? It’s time we realise we can build our own small community in a world bent on ridiculing those who believe in utopia. It’s time that someone who works at, or owns a pest control company should go visit these shelters and spray them for the kids, someone who owns a pharmacy or works for P&G should get on to request they provide a monthly supply of period pads for the girls shelters.
We can create alternative realities, redefine utopia into something we can live; a cathartic moment, a moment that eases suffering. So for the mother who offered her breast milk, for the doctors who offer their clinics and staff, for the teachers who go over to read and nurture, for the dancers who go and give aerobics classes, for the lawyers who ran from police station to another making sure our street kids don’t disappear, for the other teacher who makes bracelets of hope with the children in Canada to send to the kids on the street in Egypt, to the hair dresser that goes every week to each the girls the craft and for all the others still figuring out how they can embody change, not out of their purses, but out of their entire being, it is you that give me strength to carry on and it’s you all who have created the utopia I live in. Thank you.