Mamo, a poor orphan, and Dani, a runaway, form an unexpected alliance while each is sleeping on the streets, and together they join a gang of streetboys, begging but not stealing. They each offer different talents to the group, which has a strict code of sharing whatever they get hold of. Mamo becomes the Garbage King, expert at finding treasures on rubbish heaps; Dani writes stories which the others sell for a few coins. Each becomes more and more accustomed to this way of life until Dani’s father finds him. Tiggist, Mamo’s older sister, becomes both an assistant in Mrs Faridah’s shop and a nursemaid to her daughter Yasmin. However, this causes Mrs Faridah to become jealous of her, so when a local lad shows an interest in her and promises to marry her once he has established himself with an electronics shop she accepts enthusiastically.
The story manages to blend the harsh situation of those forced to live and sleep on the streets with a sense of comradeship and how to make the best of a situation without resorting to crime. When one of the gang does in fact steal something, he is given the choice of being beaten as a punishment or being thrown out of the gang The concept of marriage and family is quite strong in the culture as a whole. Dani’s father is demanding of his son whom he loves, but sees as lazy and unprofitable, believing that it is laziness rather than lack of ability which is holding him back at school. He redeems himself somewhat by coming to find his son, now changed and hardened by months on the streets, but by the end of the book has still not come entirely to terms with the idea that Dani might not want to follow his lead.
In one way, the whole story is an illustration to those in richer cultures as to how one may have a poorer way of life yet retain one’s dignity. Everyone is living, if not happily, without disgrace: the street-gang, the farming families to whom Mamo is sold early on, and the small shopkeepers. Dani’s family is not without its merit, but his father’s impatience for his son to do well shows them in a bad light. There are a couple of passing mentions of prostitution as a way of gaining money for the poor.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer. This review first appeared on his website, goodtoread.org.