My name is Moses.
I am deaf and dumb.
I make my living by shining shoes.
For 1000 riel* I will expertly clean your shoes.
Adam and I met Moses long before he became Moses, when he was a nameless street kid who both charmed us and broke our hearts.
He would pop up from behind the plants encompassing the restaurant and pretend to surprise us. Almost every time we went for lunch or dinner along the riverside, he would come past and stand near our table, grinning his toothy grin, his protruding ears like exclamation marks on the sides of his head. When Neth, the owner, wasn't looking we'd sneak him slices of pizza and leftovers. He would grab anything we gave him and quickly start shoving it in his mouth as he ran across the street, staring back suspiciously as if someone might try to take it from him, as if he couldn't believe his luck.
Mostly, however, he would just stand there, looking over us, as if we were his long lost family, trying to protect us somehow. If anyone at the table so much as glanced in his direction, he would respond with a big smile, sometimes with a funny face. Most of the patrons along the river side, a major tourist spot, found his presence disconcerting and chased him away. Some of the other expatriates treated him scornfully and made fun of him, probably out of fear.
One day he appeared with a shoeshine kit. Holding the brush in one hand and waving it in the air, he pointed at our feet with the other. Very few of the other street kids begged for money; the boys shined shoes or sold newspapers and the girls peddled fragrant rings of jasmine flowers. It seemed as though he was trying to support himself and we gave him our shoes and tipped him extra. Sadly, it didn’t last long. The next week we saw him again, without the kit and a long, sad face.
Obviously, the other kids had taken it from him.
This is the hardest part of the story. He was alone, truly alone. The shopkeepers shooed him away and all the other children on the streets avoided him. The other kids all worked in pairs and spent the lull of the day playing games and walking hand in hand. Moses was always by himself; he had no family, real or adopted. All of this of course stemmed from his disability. Adam and I considered paying for him to go to school, but there were no such places available for him. In a nation already so stifled by poverty, there is precious little sympathy or resources to go around.
Eat everything on your plate.
There are children starving in other countries.
I remember watching Moses, as he stood outside of the restaurant where tourists fed on expensive poached eggs and smoked salmon. Where I sat and sipped my two dollar café-au-lait. He was no longer smiling, his eyes focusing on nothing, half closed, while his body gently swayed side to side. Every so often he would almost topple over and just catch himself in time. At first I thought he might have been tired or sick. Then I realized I was looking at a starving child.
He was so hungry he couldn't stand. He obviously hadn't begged enough money that day to be able to afford a simple meal. The waitresses chased him away, not wanting him to upset the patrons. It is so easy to pretend that these things don't happen, don't exist and to ignore them even when they are in front of you. Even when a child is passing out not ten meters from where you sit, eating an expensive meal. None of the other customers thought to help him.
Towards the end of my time in Cambodia, Moses became Moses. He appeared at our table one morning, nervously holding the laminated sign up for us to read. He probably had no idea that he had been given a name or what anything on the sign said. He just knew that when he showed it to foreigners on the riverside, they smiled at him and gave him their shoes to be cleaned. It must have seemed magical and there was a new hope in his eyes.
At some point I realized that Moses had never had the chance to be a kid, so when a friend of mine told me she was returning to Phnom Penh, I sent her a gift to pass onto him. It was the simplest thing: a pack of markers and a scrap book; for drawing pictures. It is hard to imagine that there are children in this world who will never have the opportunity to draw. Kids should have it all, crayons, stickers, googley eyes, glitter, colored paper. They should have as much available to them as possible to encourage them to create and imagine and most importantly, to dream.
Street kids in the developing world don't have such luxuries. Imagination belongs to the wealthy.
I'll never know if Moses made use of his markers and paper. Maybe the other kids stole them, maybe they were lost, maybe he sold them for some food. It's possible, also, that he just didn't haven't the slightest clue what to do with them and threw them out. The only reassuring thought I have is this: at least he got the chance. At least for once in his life, he knew, however fleetingly, that someone was thinking of him. I hope that for a few moments he felt a little less alone.
*The equivalent of 25 American cents.