By Ochieng’ Ogodo
[NAIROBI] “Sometimes you feel that the world has neglected you with all the cold merciless winds of suffering ranged against you. You have no space and you just want to die,” Ramadhan Njogu Mbugua a.k.a ‘Msani’ summed up his many years experience in the streets of Nairobi.
With a distant look in his eyes under the shade of a curved peaked cap, he breathed rather heavily and uttered, “It’s been difficult; very tough. Years have rolled by and life has been extremely tormenting. Living in the streets is no easy undertaking.”
He went on, “the society does not accept you. People look at you very suspiciously whenever you walk around.”
Dressed in a checked cotton shirt, a denim trouser and a pair of heavy soled suede shoes-all soiled out of their factory colour-Mbugua is the embodiment of the harsh reality that life is for many street children in Kenya.
Born in a poverty stricken and quarrelsome family, Mbugua abandoned school at primary when in class three and hit the streets at the age of about 11 in 1998. In the first two years it was an on-off affair.
“The first time I started staying in the streets it was very miserably, not to mean that it isn’t today. Then I was about 11 and I had to struggle with older boys, some of whom were ruthless and could forcefully take my food away,” he remembered.
According to Mbugua it has been a life with hardcores, some of whom settle their problems using knives. Use of drugs like cocaine, mandrax and bhang is rampant. “People even injected themselves with drugs. As for me, I have been using marijuana. What else would one do to remain calm in this hustle that is street life,” he posed.
His day starts at 5 PM when he wakes up and goes to clean some premises in the bustling business estate of Eastleigh in Nairobi. Sometimes he gets a paltry US$1.2 that he uses for breakfast. After that he takes a break and rests at the base.
According to Joseph Nandwa, an officer with the Undugu Society of Kenya, one of the most experienced organisations in dealing with street children in Kenya, the street children and youth operate in gangs of about 10 in specific locations code named base.
Back to the base after morning odd chores, Mbugua takes a rest until 4 PM when he goes scavenging through heaps of garbage for discarded materials like plastics bottles and broken plastic containers, cartons, charcoal and sells for them an income. He also wanders about for scrap metals, which he sells to dealers.
Just turned 20 recently, Catherine Wanjiru dropped out of a secondary school in form three after she conceived in 2007. Then she was staying with her grandparents after her father and mother died in 2002 and 2004 respectively. With her aging grandparents unable to support her properly and her expected child, she was forced to leave Nakuru town, about two hours drive south west of Nairobi, where they were staying to move to Nairobi.
She joined a married age mate. “Her husband always pestered me for sex and one day he tried to have carnal knowledge of me then I reported him to police. He was arrested, prosecuted and jailed for two months,” said Wanjiru.
“It was at this point that I moved to the streets to beg. Some were sympathetic while others outrightly abused you.” She got another street boy who married her and they rented hovel in a slum area but violence made her flee back to the streets and to a different base.
Out there, she aid, some want to take advantage of your desperate situation and exploit you sexually. One of the most serious frustrations, according to Wanjiru, is harassment by city councils security personnel and police who pounce and arrest them.
Some of these people sometimes lead the girls to dark alleys where they are raped before being set free. They don’t have food, no shelter and people sleep in the cold covering themselves with polythene sheets during rainy season
But why the street?
According to Undugu Society of Kenya Programme Manager, Children and Youth, Josephine Muli, poverty is one of the major reasons accounting for this. “Those who cannot find food at home take to the streets to beg.”
Mistreatment by step parents, especially where there are semi-orphans or total orphans also drives them to the streets.
In slums areas there is overcrowding. “When they reach a certain age they feel they can no longer stay with parents in those tiny ramshackle and they will move to the streets.”
There is also the peer pressure from those already in the street. “Whenever they tell those not yet in the streets of how they make a few shillings from begging, they also get encouraged to join,” said Muli
Started some 44 years ago by a Dutch priest who was concerned about the plight of parking boys, Undugu Society of Kenya has done the task well but its has not been easy.
“From a humble beginning we managed to put up two children’s homes in Dandora, one in Eastleigh and another in Kitengela,” Muli said.
“We go to the streets and talk to them to quit, something we do at night when they were not scared of city security workers and the Kenya police,” she said.
Muli said the mantra of their message has been for them to think beyond the street life; that there is a much better life out of the streets and to also ask them to think seriously of what they want to be in future.
In those days a few of them could turn up in the homes the following morning. “We rehabilitated such and took them to their parents but some would return to the streets and that has been one of the big challenges in dealing with street children; the return back syndrome,” said Muli.
But three years ago, the organization changed its plan and in the new Strategic Development Plan 2006 to 2010, the emphasis moved from having them in homes to working with them in the streets.
“In the streets they operate in gangs [base]. Every base has a leader and we try to put the leaders of different bases together and train them on leadership skills. We also give them knowledge on HIV/Aids, group dynamics-how a group works, to know how to handle different characters and on the lifespan of a group,” she stated. They become trainers of trainers for effective trickling down of information.
Undugu Society of Kenya then trains the leaders and the group members on business skill on how to become and how to become entrepreneurs. “The second stage,” according to Muli, “is capacity building; building confidence in them, make them have self esteem then give grants on average US$ 150, or more based on what they want to do, to start small businesses.”
To ensure that this works smoothly, Muli said, they introduced the association model and they seek the opinion of members on what they want to do with the grants.
Some do garbage recycling, others environmental cleaning while some sell small merchandises like sweets. Some are trained in skills like hairdressing, dressmaking. “We attach the children to artisans and we pay for the cost of trainings like in mechanics.”
Currently they are making contacts with the government to include them in the Youth Development Fund so that they can be advanced loans to run businesses. She said during the interview that a few have registered with the fund.
The Undugu Society of Kenya shut down all their homes under this new strategic development plan except one in Kitengela where they take very small children for between one to six months after which they are taken back to their homes and put in school with the organisation meeting the cots of education.
“We also talk to teachers and local chiefs about the children and incase there is problem they reach us.”
City security officer and regular Kenya police harass them making it difficult to operate as an association. And because they have been living on begging they expect handouts almost all the times. Another major challenge for any organisation in dealing with street children is their coming back to the streets. “But, for those who have gone through us only a few come back,” she pointed out.
Nandwa says there is also the bad attitude from the public and people see them as potentials criminals whenever they are about. At times they are suspected of a crime, which could be true or false, and people are always quick in administering mob justice on them without bothering to determinate truth.
Whenever they are under the influence drugs a quarrel may ensue, for instance sharing proceeds from chores undertaken, leading to a serious fight among them according to Nandwa. Some also use them for crime perpetration like theft of motor vehicle side mirrors.
**Ochieng’ Ogodo is a Nairobi-based journalist whose works have been published in Africa, the US and Europe .He is the English-speaking Africa and Middle East region winner for the 2008 Reuters-IUCN Media Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. He is the chairman of the Kenya Environment and Science Journalists Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.