Last Updated on April 4, 2007, 12:00 am
James Keya (not in uniform), a former street kid and pupil of Morisson Primary School, mentors his peers who include Joshua Kamau (left). Picture by Jeniffer Wachie
By Lynesther Mureu
Picture this: You enter a deserted city street and, believing you are safe, you suddenly sense unwelcome company from behind. Stealthily increasing your pace, obviously terrified about prospects of being mugged, physically injured or smeared with grime, you are transfixed when another street boy appears just ahead of you. You are trapped!
Such were the scenarios that inhabitants of Nairobi were treated to, before street children were cleared from the city streets a few years back. But where did these kids go and what became of them?
Some went mad because of drugs
Sixteen-year-old James Keya entered the streets when he was just 10. Life became unbearable after his mother died. "My dad remarried immediately thereafter, but soon it was fights and constant mistreatment from my stepmother," claims the teenager. With home becoming chaotic, and with hardly enough to eat, Keya ran off to the streets, a life he had heard from other children held better promise.
The boy’s friends, who begged by day and returned to the Mathare slums, Nairobi, by nightfall, had told him there were many generous well wishers to depend on. He remembers his life on the streets: "The first day, I slept in a sack."
He says he nearly gave up and returned home. "I was used to a mattress and a blanket at least." When the promised money was not forthcoming, he turned to selling scrap metal.
Keya became one of the hundreds of street children who were taken into rehabilitation centres by the Ministry of Local Government in 2003. After living in the cold for three years, a tough life he never wants to return to, he found himself at the Bahati Rehabilitation Centre.
He says of his former life: "I saw many of my friends get knocked down by vehicles and die, while others went mad because of drugs."
Besides being provided with shelter and food, he and his colleagues were taken to Morrison Primary School. Having started schooling before running to the streets, all he needed was extra effort to catch up. Enrolling at Standard Seven, he had less than one year to prepare for his first national examination.
In November 2004, he attempted the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination, which he failed. He attempted the exam again in 2005 and scored 311 marks. "I thought I could get a sponsor to take me to secondary school, which didn’t happen," he laments.
The proprietor of Miraculous Academy, a boarding school in Meru, approached the centre to sponsor some students. Keya volunteered to repeat. This time, his determination bore fruit as he scored 367 marks in the 2006 exam. Sponsored for a single term by PCEA Church, Bahati, he has enrolled at Machakos Boys. But will he find funding for the rest of his high school education? Will he realise his ambition of becoming surgeon?
Home among junk collectors
Joshua Kamau, also 16, joined the streets in 2,000, also at the age of 10. He too came from a slum, Korogocho, where he lived with his mother and five siblings. "When mom was alive, life was bearable," he recalls. Though there were many struggles, she was a pillar of strength for all of us."
As fate would have it, however, the hand of death took away the only parent he knew, leaving him with an older stepsister, whom he says made life difficult for him and his siblings.
"I knew many boys who used to beg by day and return to their homes at night," he says. "But mom never allowed that. Rather, she insisted that we go to school." Joshua never thought he would end up living in the streets full time. But street life, in his experience, was better than home. Unlike Keya, who found the streets a haven of depression, Joshua felt at home.
Glue and bhang keep hunger away
With friends who surrounded him day and night, and who gladly shared with him, he had no reason to think of getting out of this second home.
"I was introduced to sniffing gum (glue) and smoking bang, together with drinking beer and other available brews," he owns up. He was told that glue and bhang keep hunger away and, indeed, they seemed to help. But the habit became addictive, and he hoped to stop.
His break came in 2003 when the City Council, in a bid to rid the city of street families, took Joshua and others and settled them in a home in Kayole, before transferring him to Bahati Rehabilitation Centre. Here, he was taken to Morrison Primary at Standard Three, at the age of 13.
Streets open up one’s mind
"At first I was afraid of school because I looked older than the rest," he remembers. Determination pushed Joshua from tagging at the bottom of the class to being among the top three. "The streets open up one’s mind and your thinking capacity is sharpened," he reveals.
"I study hard to become a scientist," he says. In their free time, he and fellow pupils came up with crazy inventions, but they never finished one, because of their busy and migratory lifestyles.
He says he will make it to university, and hopes to find the cure for HIV/AIDS. Having learned of the benefits of education, he doesn’t plan to return to the streets. But not everyone at the centre is happy.
Sometimes back, he remembers, "We were taking some colleagues to hospital, but they managed to run away from what they thought was confinement." He wonders how a human being would opt for the harsh life of the streets.
Enduring the pain of stigmatization
At 24, Mercy Njoki understands life on the streets. She lived in Meru with her parents before her mother became mentally ill and her father reportedly deserted them. With nothing to call their own, they packed and left to live with relatives in Nairobi.
"The first few months were bearable but, soon, we were thrown out and the streets became our only refuge," she remembers. That was 1989. She was eight years old. Her brother was two years younger. Her innocence notwithstanding, the small-bodied woman would witness street violence that included the rape of girls by older boys. On the streets, she explains, young, weak children are under the mercy of the bullies.
Soon, Mercy and her family were playing cat-and-mouse games with the police. She was arrested on many occasions and ended up in many centres like the Kabete rehab, but always found a way to escape and return to the streets.
She explains: "It is very hard to settle in a rehab centre because you are confined to rules that you are not used to." On the streets, she got into the practices of sniffing glue, smoking and drinking.
At 10, Mercy was taken off the streets by Undugu Society and taken to Lioki Primary School. In 1998, she attempted KCPE and scored 535 marks out of a possible 700. "The streets taught me no good, except how to be a hardcore," she says amidst sobs. Her good grades secured her a place at St Joseph’s Girls, Kibwezi.
While at the school, she says, she was visited by officers in an Undugu Society van, which was emblazoned with the visible message, "Educating street childrenÉ" Seeing the van, students of St Joseph’s became restless.
From then on, it was teasing and name calling Ñ even from the teachers. At about the same time, a song by the name ÔWoi, woi chokora’ (a cry for the street child) had been released by a Kenyan musician. The song’s mission had been to highlight the plight of street children. At Kibwezi, however, the music was used to humiliate and dehumanise her.
"At one point, I had said that if that is what educated people and education can do to you, then it was of no importance," she recalls. Her performance in Form One was unimpressive, something she attributed to her social distress. Soon, she was skipping morning and evening preps to avoid the constant mocking.
It was at Form Two that a compassionate teacher advised her against giving up. From then on, her performance picked. She later became a chairlady in the Young Christian Society, drama and debate clubs. At Form Three, she was elevated to a school prefect.
Dreams kept alive
"I was aiming to be a lawyer in order to fight the injustices I saw in society, against the oppressed and depressed," says the young woman. At the end of her Form Four in 2002, Mercy managed a B plain, missing the cut-off point for university, but she kept hope alive. As she waited, she volunteered as a peer educator at Undugu Society, worked as a sales girl, and took part in radio theatre.
Today, Mercy is in her First Year at the University of Nairobi, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, with minors in Literature and Sociology. Her lucky break came from a sponsor in the Netherlands whom she landed through Undugu. "If it were not for Undugu’s heart of helping street children like me, I would still be on the streets," says the now confident scholar. Her love for psychology stems form the relief the profession gave her mom, who is well now and able to take care of her. Her brother is away in North-Eastern Kenya, working as a clinical officer. He too was taken off the streets and to school.
An appeal from Undugu
"Education is the right of every child. It does not choose from any background," says Alois Opiyo, Executive Director, Undugu Society. When its founder started operating with street children, he even sent a petition to the then government to introduce free primary education. When this failed, Undugu started its own schools to help the many street children, who were being discriminated against in normal schools, both by fellow students and by teachers.
"Poor and disadvantaged students, if well educated, can fight better for others in the same predicament," affirms the director. To him, educating a child is like investing for long-term returns. But patience is critical.
Street children need much time before they can get accustomed to normal living. According to Alois, the stigma that society places on such children only works to make them more unmanageable. Undugu’s biggest success to date is a student who went up to the Masters’ level and is now a senior officer at Coca Cola. Nine others have secured undergraduate degrees and many more are upcoming, thanks to free primary education.
They have centres for adult learners and a tertiary division, where they train mechanics students, carpenters and others who do not make it to university.
Like Undugu, the City Council has educated street children, especially at secondary school level. Besides education, they shelter and feed the children, who have eagerly embraced free primary education, but almost grind to a stop as they head for secondary school. "
"We are crippled when it comes to educating street children at secondary school level, for lack of funding," says Robert Mwema, acting Chief Children’s Officer. Of the 26 former street children who sat for last year’s KCPE, three have been called to provincial schools, with the highest scorer having had 383 marks.