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An Eight-Year-Old Street Child Is Killed, and a World Opens Up

In explanatory notes, Lockhart and Chama say that 85 percent of the incidents described in the book were “directly observed by a team member,” and that around 75 percent of quotations were captured with an audio recorder. The remainder was reconstructed through interviews. Still, I had an unsettling sense, at times, that I was hearing a writer’s imagination at work.

Lockhart and Chama insert themselves into the story as unnamed, secondary characters. Chama is the idealistic “Outreacher,” trying doggedly, sometimes wistfully, to break through the street kids’ hard shells. Immersed in this bleak world of tiny beggars and prostitutes, he believes passionately in the power of small good deeds. Lockhart is “the white man,” a jaded veteran of the NGO and development world, skeptical of happy endings. In a roadside bar, the two friends debate whether individual acts of generosity can add up to anything in such a hopeless place.

By the end of the book, it is clear who won the argument. “Walking the Bowl” describes layer upon layer of moral disaster. Elites grow wealthy while most of the population remains desperately poor. And NGO workers live in their own self-congratulatory world, feeding off a river of international aid and comparing notes on desperate children.

After laying all that out, “Walking the Bowl” opts to steer away from argument or analysis. Instead, in the margins of a detective story, it evokes a world in its entirety: the fleshy, sticky smell of a subtropical bus station, the grimy windows and dark hallways of a police precinct. It shows how fluctuations in the price of oil reverberate, reaching the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people. Its pages vibrate with life.

Most of all, it tells the story of children who, under impossible circumstances, manage to survive. Their voices are not always what we expect. After finding the child’s body, Lusabilo surveys the mountains of trash that surround it with a kind of jaunty practicality. “They relied on one another to make it all work, to maintain invisible boundaries and unspoken norms,” the narrator says of the scavenger children.

He does not see himself as inferior, because he knows that the smaller kids in the dump look up to him. He’s proud to be part of a network, even a network of “scrawny worker bees with twig arms and burned-out bodies.” They may be poor, Lusabilo tells us, but they have a community. And a person who has a community is not lost.

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