Oprah: So you wouldn't—you wouldn't let go of this dream of becoming a writer.
Uwem: No, no, I wouldn't. And I'm, like, oh, I might have a gift of, the gift of writing fiction. So I pursued. After six months, the first story came together. That story...
Oprah: Was this the first story?
Uwem: No, no, no. It wasn't this. It was "Baptizing the Gun." I sent that to, you know, the Nigerian newspaper on a Wednesday. Three days later, Saturday, they published it. They serialized it. And I was, like, "Wow,..."
Uwem: "...I'm going to fly with this." So every so often I worked all night to write. And what was growing within me was so strong and yet fragile. I knew nothing about how difficult it is to publish. Or even to publish short stories. I just felt excited.
Oprah: Because you had the Nigerian Star that printed it three days after you sent it. I guess not.
Uwem: So when I got to Nairobi and saw these street kids, I did not know I could write their story immediately because I was afraid of making mistakes about a foreign culture. It's easier for me to make a mistake about my culture, my situation, than going to some other person's country and messing it up. So I was very afraid. But every Saturday I would go to this city center and walk around, from a distance, observe what the street kids were doing. The lives they were living. How the Kenyans were reacting to them. They live, you know, in gangs. There was one gang near a school and that gang was still friendly because they were close to home, close to home. So I would talk with them. I would talk with them. And these are...
Oprah: These are street kids.
Uwem: Street kids.
Uwem: And it was one of them, you know, who was very humane. I don't know how he managed to maintain his humanity.
Oprah: When you say "gang," you know in our country when we say gang, we mean thugs, we mean groups of kids who commit violent acts against other people. They rob and they steal and do things like that. Is that what you mean, too?
Uwem: These kids can do that. They were doing that. That's why, you know, the Kenyans were not very excited about them. So they, you know, you would walk past them without... I noticed that people were no longer seeing them because they were capable of violence. They were capable of really hurting you.
Oprah: They were capable of violence and people were afraid of them and would try to avoid them. Yeah. It's what we do in this country to the homeless I think to describe it.
Uwem: It's true.
Oprah: You cross the street or you ignore them.
Uwem: That's true.Yes.
Oprah: You pretend that they're not there. You want to avoid them.
Uwem: Yes. But I observed them for a while and I noticed that they had some tenderness towards each other. And they were also defending themselves against, you know, the ordinary person. So for me there was a story there. Do these people love each other? How do they survive? How come we, the normal people, don't see this. We think they're hardened. There must be something we can touch, press a finger on here, to ignite this humanity.
Uwem: So I started thinking of how can I write this story to, to reveal...
Oprah: So was there one boy in particular that this story, "An Ex-Mas Feast," came from?
Uwem: My experience with that boy, because he was very decent and nice. If I traveled away, if I went away for holidays and came back, when he saw me, he would not say, "What did you bring for me?" He would say, "How are you? Where did you go? I missed you. Did you see your parents?" Others would constantly, and understandably, say "give us food" or "give us money," but not this guy. And now if I wanted to give money to the group, all of them would point to this guy. "Give to him. He will share equally." So it...
Oprah: So did the Christmas feast, "An Ex-Mas Feast," the story started to evolve around what would happen when that boy went home? Is that how you evolved this story?
Uwem: No, I, one time I came back from holidays and the guy had disappeared. They said he had gone to the city center to become a more serious street kid. And I spent my time walking around Nairobi...
Oprah: To become a more serious street kid.
Uwem: Yeah, meaning the ones at the city center were really rough. So he had moved there. I spent my time in Kenya sometimes looking around trying to see whether I could spot him.
Uwem: I couldn't. And I, I began to say to myself, "I'm going to write a story but it's not going to be the story of that boy." You know. I know that street families, you know, people—there are just street families. I want to write about that. What does it mean to have a child on the street, live on the street, you know, how does this work?
Oprah: You know what's interesting is that when people first started e-mailing us, having not seen the children living on the street, and I think, Anderson, when you were here you had said you would experience being in Nairobi and seeing some of these street kids also, correct?
Anderson: Yeah.In fact, it was one of the first stories I worked on when I was living if Africa. I went out and spent a lot of time with street kids in slums at Nairobi. And one of the things that so jumps out of you and it's a central part of this story is how they get through the day sniffing glue.
Anderson: It kills their hunger pangs and also, obviously, makes them sort of high. It's highly addictive. It's highly destructive to their brains. But you see little, little children under the age of with a bottle of glue underneath their nose and a kind of—they put it in their teeth and hold onto it and kind of breathe in the fumes and it's so disturbing to see.