Kampala, Uganda September 26, 2015
Young Dog lives on Money Street. On this ironically named stretch of tin shacks, free flowing commerce is carried out from baskets and wooden boxes, on small pieces of carpet carefully spread over the red dirt or from the dark interior of ramshackle lean-tos. Young Dog grew up in this neighborhood of Kampala, Uganda after his mother and father went their separate ways and his mother decided raising another kid alone was more than she could endure.
Before he was old enough to remember, Young Dog was dropped off in front of the dirt-stained door of one of the neighborhood mamas. As he grew up, he gained a reputation for following people in the neighborhood that looked safe…like a puppy might do…earning him the name Young Dog…which eventually replaced his Muslim name, Ahamzu. In case anyone should forget his new identity, he had it crudely tattooed on the top of his right shoulder, Young Dog.
Like the other residents of Money Street, Young Dog had no money, almost no belongings, nowhere else to go, no hope. As a young teen, he began sleeping in a saloon/tea house after it closed for the night, finding a spot on the floor along with several other boys from the neighborhood. “I got to know Young Dog because I slept near him,” said Derek, as he described sleeping next to Young Dog on the floor of a video rental shop, another makeshift home. They occasionally worked at the shop too, renting out videos they bought on the streets with their meager earnings.
It was near the video store that Young Dog and Derek first met Simon Okiria.
Simon is the Young Life regional director for Uganda, and he lives in the neighborhood adjacent to Money Street. Simon began to walk Money Street after he moved into the neighborhood, “not going anywhere, just moving around,” explains Simon, earning suspicious glances as a Money Street outsider. As he moved around, he tried to engage kids, following his Young Life leader instincts to go to where kids are and be their friend. But these kids are accustomed to being exploited by outsiders and they have learned to be wary. As Simon hung out on Money Street, one kid seemed to stand out; he was friends with all the other kids and exhibited strong leadership traits. He was Young Dog.
Simon decided he was going to make Young Dog his friend, but Young Dog wanted nothing to do with him. During one walk through the neighborhood, Simon spotted Young Dog cutting hair with an electric razor. Simon sat in his chair by the side of the road and asked to have his hair cut, striking up conversation as Young Dog worked. Midway through the haircut, the power went out leaving Simon’s hair a closely cropped stubble on one side and a short bush on the other. Then Simon did the unexpected, he invited Young Dog to go to his house with him to finish the cut. While only a few hundred yards from Money Street, Simon’s small home is a different world. Young Dog had an instinct for safe places, and he immediately felt safe at Simon’s home. After the cut, he started to open up, albeit still suspicious of why this man would take an interest in a Money Street kid without expecting something in return. As Simon continued to visit Money Street, Young Dog began to trust him, introducing him to other boys from the neighborhood.
Simon began to meet with these boys each week, teaching them basic principles from the Bible, telling them about Jesus, getting them to examine their lives and getting them to begin to dream big about what life could be.
But for each one of these boys, pursuing the big dream seemed far off as they were often tired and constantly hungry with no consistent place to sleep and no stable resources for food. Simon reached into his own pocket and temporarily removed that obstacle by renting a small house with one bedroom for three of the boys…and twelve boys moved in. It was not a permanent solution, but it made life more predictable. Simon showed them how they could make chapatti in their kitchen and sell it on the streets, adding to the household income. They are now making enough money to cover the rent.
Titi, one of the boys in the house, was accused of stealing a bag of groceries from a neighboring home and was arrested. Simon went to the police station to urge him to tell the truth. Titi denied the theft and Simon explained to the police that he was “journeying with these boys” and convinced them to let Titi go so he could continue to work with him. After a few months with these boys, Simon invited them to join him at Young Life camp which was being held at Aero Beach, a lakefront property on Lake Victoria, so close to Entebbe Airport that the fuselage of the Israeli jet hijacked by Palestinian forces supported by Idi Amin rests there and has become an amusement for teens to climb on and explore.
Over the three days at camp, these boys were treated to more food than they had ever eaten, given a bed with real sheets that they didn’t have to share and given a chance to follow Jesus and dream about what life could be. By the end of camp, the boys from Money Street decided to follow Jesus and stood on the last day to publicly declare their decision.
They continue meeting and three of the boys, Derek, Jonathan, and Young Dog, have become volunteer Young Life leaders, leading Young Life club on Money Street for 25-50 kids each week.
Young Dog is attending church and was recently baptized. He is passionate about Young Life. On his right shoulder…just beneath Young Dog…a new tattoo says Young Life.
Four years later, the Lord is still moving in Young Dog’s life. Simon reported an update about Young Dog’s most recent discovery of his mother.
“Most of the people on Money street rely on the rich people…they are very poor and they are thieves. Young Dog (“Dawg” or YD) was a young person who did not know his father or mother. He didn’t know what happened to his parents. His mother had left him when he was 3.5 years old. Young Dawg gave his life to the Lord. A few months ago, YD came to Simon. He said there was a lady that knew his mother and could tell Young Dawg how to find her. He asked Simon to go with him to speak to this woman. Simon accepted, and they went. The woman told him that his mother is now married to someone else and lives far away. Young Dawg felt it was important to know his mother. Simon went along with Young Dawg and they met. They embraced and held each other in tears. Young Dawg sang a song as he cried in his mother’s arms…it is a song Simon often sings. She told Young Dawg his real name, he had never known his real name before. Now Young Dawg is looking for his father.”