Docu-film Tough Bond is a stark look at the relationship between Kenya street “Survivors” and glue, a tool used by thousands of dismissed homeless children to get through the glib reality of life on the outskirts of society. Seeing children all the way from their late teens right down to infancy wandering the streets covered in dirt, barefooted with nothing but a plastic bottle with a couple ounces of glue at the bottom clinging to their lips would stir even the steeliest of hearts. Surprisingly amidst the cheerless circumstances of the community of displaced youth, there are glaringly brilliant rays of sunlight in the form of plucky street kid Sinbad and tough as nails tomboy, Akai – who help to deliver an urgent and compelling message in the most heartwarming, human way possible.
Afropunk talks to Tough Bond co-director Anneliese Vandenberg about her motivation behind the project.
By Ayara Pommells, AFROPUNK Contributor *
Tough Bond is an extremely gripping documentary. How did you stumble across the issue of glue huffing?
We didn’t have any idea either. We actually didn’t set out to make this film. It wasn’t our intentions at all. My partner Austin Peck, the co-director and me, we bought a one way ticket to Kenya because we were interested in understanding what is human on a deeper sense and what we had known in California – urban kids. I was out there with him with one rule which was to be as local as we possibly could. That meant finding families to live with. Eating at local cafes. We ended up in that first town that’s called Isiolo where we filmed Sinbad and there’s a lot going on there as far as the Turkana tribe. We started going out there and helping them with some relief food because there’s a massive famine. There’s a big state of emergency in the country and while we were out with the tribe we got the understanding that where they were living wasn’t exactly a place where humans were supposed to be living. These food drop offs were allowing them to live in these unlivable places. That was causing these really strange satellite communities that weren’t really traditional because they had been pushed off of their traditional lands already but they weren’t yet coming in to the city to integrate there so all the kids were super, super bored and in these halfway traditional villages. They all started fleeing to come to the streets and while we were there in that town, we started looking at these kids. We couldn’t go down the street without seeing at least a dozen kids at one time all over the city. We started getting really curious. How are these children just walking around and not really doing anything? These kids are like from three to twenty years old. It was heartbreaking. They’re really dirty and in pain and they’re starving. We’d never seen anything like that. We started talking to them an immediately wanting to save them and do something about it. The more we started talking, the more we started understanding the deeper story of why they’re there and coming from these villages that are not working. Communities not letting them in and everybody afraid to take care of them because there’s not much resources and so they’ve allowed this to perpetuate. We started falling in love with the kids and they’re humor and under these circumstances it was so incredible and we just wanted to understand them more.
By the end of Tough Bond I felt really conflicted. Glue huffing is questionable but hearing their stories, I felt as though I completely understood why these kids were doing it and that it would be hard to survive without it. Did you also feel conflicted?
Yeah. It was such a journey of emotions. At the beginning we were so disgusted and heartbroken. We’d take the bottles out of their mouths and wouldn’t let allow them to huff while we were all talking or together. After the first year, something happened and it struck us that it’s not about the glue, it’s about that being a symptom of a greater problem and understanding that the glue was to cope with that harsh reality. It was to use as food when they can’t find food when they’re hungry. It was to be a calming mother when they can’t sleep and they’re on the street with no blanket and its freezing. We started understanding exactly why these kids were doing it and it makes complete sense. There’s also this allegiance to the bottle where if you’re a street kid and you don’t have that bottle, you’re not one of us. So it’s also this framing of their tribe of survivors. It was wild. The last few years of doing this film we would let them huff. They’d come over and hang out and it was really strange because you feel kind of bad and you wanted to do something but we started seeing them outside of that problem and I think we can focus on the symptom but we wanted to focus on the root issue. I’d like to go back to bring breathing to them and see if they can exercise meditation and breathing or music. All these different things that could allow them to channel that same stress or that same anxiety or fear, I think we could have a much more creative group of children that are more positive and healthy. Even living there, when we would hang out with them you understand from their prospective – I would do exactly the same thing. It wasn’t strange.
One of the few adults you managed to film in the documentary and get input from was a glue factory owner. Sitting there filming him and hearing what he had to say, how did you feel when he was telling you the glue was a god thing for these kids?
That was a trip of an interview. We actually brought a friend who was a kid on the street. He’s not in the final cut. He was in the rough cut. It was so cool to be there with him. We dressed him up so that they guy didn’t know that he was a street kid. That was really tough. The man thought that we were filming him because he had a successful business and we were going to highlight his successful Kenyan business. So we kind of went in there under a different guise and it was wild. He directly just told us. We didn’t even get the chance to ask him ourselves about the street kids huffing the glue. He just went for it and was like “There is a problem with the street kids here in Africa. They’re huffing glue…” and our jaws dropped. He openly admitted it. We feel his character is so important in this in that what’s happening is that everybody is passing the torch or responsibility. If he could be responsible and put oil or mustard into his product and do something actively in the community to help these kids not huff it. Or if a mother on the street could take a child in or if the government could build a program…all of this is possible. It’s not an unsolvable issue. Yet no one will take responsibility and they’ll all deflect it. “Ah. It’s not that bad. There’s nothing we can do…” There was more of that and it’s shocking. What is happening in Kenya is everyone’s a bit tribal in that, if you’re not in their immediate tribal family they don’t really care about you. That is something that’s been ingrained for thousands of years. Right now is the first time you have these open arms from people other than your own tribe and there’s almost a psychological barrier that needs to be broken - our children are our children. They must be cared for by society.
There was another scene where the Kenyan president visited Isiolo and made the community a promise that the area would be invested in. Do you feel it was a genuine promise of change and even if it was, do you feel it would have any kind of positive impact on the community of street kids?
Mm. [Laughs] that’s the story of the world right now. [Laughs] In one perspective, the western mind of progress and development and economy building – yeah. This pipeline will build jobs and pay bills and there’s gonna be more industry which means people living in houses instead of in huts. What that also means is people getting wealthy while other people are kind of slaves on their open land that should be theirs to enjoy. This happens all over the world where development is promising something better and it may offer that to some people while the others end up in more tragic circumstances than before. On a personal level, everything that I’ve seen and experienced is no. We are safe here as human beings. To live here in a hut with a dirt driveway isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, we’re in communication with something that is a part of us and these resources are here for us to participate in instead of just take for our advantage and the idea of this development that is proper and is beautiful. There’s got to be a way of doing it that benefits everyone. I think that means starting from what is there locally and building out instead of coming in from abroad or the big city and developing elsewhere. Everyone who once owned that land gets pushed aside for someone else’s greater interest. All the tribes that have for thousands of years (these tribes in Kenya are some of the oldest on earth) they’ve lived the same way forever. For thousands of years. Suddenly because of industry and resources getting taken you have all their culture being wiped out and they’re coming to the city and there’s not enough so there’s a lot of people who are dying off or starving and it’s causing a lot of strife.
Is there a link between the glue huffing and HIV?
I haven’t specifically seen anything. What I would say is that those who are huffing glue are generally not very responsible for their behavior. You don’t see a lot of the street girls except for Akai and that’s because she was a little toughie and could hang out with the guys. All the other girls are prostitutes and they are awake in the night and they are sleeping during the day. That gets spread rampantly and you have a lot of the older street guys that are the pimps. It may contribute. Lack of education is the greatest part of it. So many people, they’ll go to an AIDS clinic and they’ll get the information from the doctor and the medicine. They’ll go home and they won’t use the medicine. They’ll put it next to their bed thinking that it’s a prayer or something. The biggest thing is the lack of understanding of how western drugs work.
Do you still keep in touch with Sinbad?
Yeah! I have a very special relationship [with Sinbad]. I made this film thinking that we would help them with getting their story out around the world and around Kenya (which we’re hoping to do this summer) we really wanted to improve their lives. Sinbad was such a teacher and gift to me. He completely changed my life. Who I am before and after I met him. Because of his light.
He seemed very responsible. There were some moments of real sacrifice from him for those around him…
Yeah. I’ve never met anyone like him. I’ve met a lot of people around the world and Sinbad, he’s a healer and he’s so strong and positive and aware. He’s dancing everywhere he goes. You’d think “Don’t you wanna cry? Isn’t this tragic?” – Instead he’s like “Nope. This is life. This is what we do! Keep moving forward and enjoy yourself…” That really created such a bond. I get him on the phone about once a month and we have conversations and a friend that is in Isiolo has taken him in to his house and been like a mentor/father and letting him work at his little juice stand. He’s changing his life. He’s a really, really smart kid.
Are you in touch with Akai?
Akai’s really difficult to get a hold of. Sometimes I’ll get a phone call from her. There’s no phone number for her to actually call her on but she has mine and every six months I’ll get a call from her. She’ll tap in and laugh a little bit and hang up. Austin is in Kenya right now and he just saw Akai and she was pregnant. We thought that she was gonna have a baby this January and she ended up losing it. She’s kind of doing her normal thing of sleeping on the streets and making it happen but she’s been really hard to watch.
What is the most important thing you want people to take away from Tough Bond?
Inside Kenya we really want to show that these children are beautiful, loving kids and that just by acknowledging these children as children there’s so much that we can do through the love. Through the eye contact. We can help these children change their lives and have a more healthy positive rhythm. On the international side this film affects people differently. What we hope with that is that people to feel their hearts and examine what is the Tough Bond of our community, of our life? Who are we neglecting in our societies and why? Why are we afraid to accept them as us and what would happen if we opened our hearts and shared our time with them?
Tough Bond is available on iTunes