A Voice For the Voiceless
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Jonathan Homer and the Undugu Society
I just spent twenty minutes staring from my balcony at the city I call home. It’s nice to be home. Now, I’m sitting on the floor of my apartment amongst a mess of clothes and half unpacked bags. There is a small pile of souvenirs sitting at the foot of my bed; a necklace for Angelle, carved bowls for Chris, a piece of jade for my Mother, a hand-woven wine carrier for Andy, and on and on; just trinkets.
I have other souvenirs that aren’t in the pile. They are stored in more abstract places. They are small boxes with little labels. Their contents are made of emotions.
Some of the labels on the boxes are the names of the children I met and are full of heartbreak. They’re the boxes that I filled with the moments of wanting to cry. They come from when I was close enough to the suffering that I no longer just watched it; I felt it.
One of the boxes is labeled with an image of a small child in a dirty yellow t-shirt. I will forever see her image in my mind as she follows me through a Nairobi market, persistently hoping for a few more shillings. She never spoke; just looked up at me with an open palm. I have her box. It is a box of sadness.
I have other boxes that are full of anger. They were filled at those moments when a child’s suffering made me so angry that I wanted to scream and shake my fists at somebody. I didn’t always know who to shake my fists at. Was it the government, the apathetic commuters, the parents, or the sky? Even when I did know who was to blame, I had to store my angry emotions in a box to sit dormant.
The boxes of anger are labeled with the names of the exploiters and the abusers. One of the boxes is labeled “Mama Kanini.” She is the modern day Fagin, the career criminal from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Like Fagin, Mama Kanini makes a living gaining the trust of street children and then using their desperation for her own gain; skimming off the top of donors’ generosity, putting children to work, letting the fingers of children pick pockets to fill her own coffers. She has a smile that deceives and a slyness that exploits. She makes me angry with emotions that I hide in a box.
There is a box of anger for the policemen who intimidate, harass, and beat children who live on the streets. I hate their attitudes, their smirks, and their trigger happy fingers. Honestly, I hate them. But, I could never show it. I just put that hate in a box.
These are boxes that I don’t like carrying around. I’m not proud of feeling sadness and anger. But, my boxes are the result of the realities of the world we live in. What do I do with these souvenir boxes? Should they sit at the top of my closet until I can forget them? Or should I give them to people?
I live a few blocks from the White House. What if I left a couple of boxes with the man at the gate? Would they get to the President? Would he learn about the sadness of the girl in the yellow t-shirt?
I go to school across the street from the IMF and the World Bank. Could I give them a box of my anger about the Kenyan police officers who kill the innocent?
My friend Brittany works for USAID. Could I ask her to deliver a box full of the suffering of poverty to her boss?
The Kenyan Embassy is a short walk from my apartment. I would love to sit with their Ambassador and lavish my souvenir boxes on him. Would he appreciate the box with Mama Kanini’s name on it? Would he appreciate the countless boxes with children’s names on them? I would give him boxes for children who have been orphaned by AIDS, beaten by parents and neighbors, and turned out by poverty.
I want to give boxes to everyone. I want people to know what happens in our world. I want people to know about children who feel things that most of us wouldn’t dream of feeling.
These children live thousands of miles away. But, what is a thousand miles? A thousand miles can be spanned by a day of air-travel or by a one second Google search. These children aren’t thousands of miles away. They are sleeping on our streets and digging in our garbage. They are asking for our spare shilling and a piece of bread. They are the children who play in our neighborhoods at night. They are the children who should be in our schools. They are our children. No matter what part of the world we live in, they are our children!
When my Dad was fifteen years old, he lost his parents in a plane crash. He and his sisters were orphaned by a thick fog hanging over the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. It isn’t a topic that my family discusses often. But, as I hear the stories of many of the children living on the streets who have also lost their parents, my mind sometimes wanders around to my Dad’s own history.
After my Grandparents’ accident, my dad and his sisters were taken in by their grandparents. In spite of being in the prime of their golden years, they honorably chose to raise a second family. Parents coping with the loss of their children chose to care for children coping with the loss of their parents. Together, they had been through a tragedy and together, they would try to heal and go forward.
Sometime after the accident, my dad’s grandparents insisted that he and his sisters join them for a family night at the movies. They drove to the movie house in downtown Idaho Falls to see the newly-released Mary Poppins. My teenage father probably wasn’t too thrilled about the movie selection. But, they watched it anyway.
That evening, while watching men dance on chimneys and a clever nanny give children their sugar fix, my Dad, his sisters, and his Grandparents laughed. They laughed out-loud and they laughed together. According to my dad, it was the first time after the accident that they laughed together. After the tragic loss of their parents, my Dad and his sisters needed a good laugh, and Mary Poppins delivered.
Children living on the streets in Kenya are like my teenage father; they have known tragedy at a young age and need to heal. Part of that healing process is learning to laugh again. My dad and his sisters got their laugh back from Mary Poppins. Many children in Kenya are getting their laugh back at Undugu’s Kitengela Center.
I first visited Kitengela several weeks ago. Prior to visiting Kitengela, I had met the children in several slums where I had been greeted by dozens of children that were cold, hungry, dirty, and high on glue. It was depressing. But, the afternoon at Kitengela was much different; clean children with sober eyes ran and played while laughing and smiling. Seeing the children at Kitengela was like seeing redemption.
A couple of weeks ago, I took my friend Kelsey to Kitengela. She saw the same happiness at Kitengela that I saw. It is a place where children can laugh and smile after months, years, or a lifetime of tragedy. Kelsey wanted to give these children something that they had probably never had: a birthday party.
Together, Kelsey, my coworker Norah, and I planned a birthday party. Thanks to a sponsor that Kelsey recruited, we went back to Kitengela last Thursday with pointed hats, a birthday cake with candles, decorations, and bags full of games and prizes. The children chose their teams with team names and team cheers. Then, they learned how to bob for apples, run three-legged races, throw water balloons, and walk with an egg on a spoon. They laughed, we laughed, everyone laughed. We all laughed together!
Every now and then, I take the liberty of changing the names of the people I write about. I don’t always say when I do it, but in Jed’s case, it is important to note that I’m using an alias.
Jed’s story is actually too complicated for a blog. It would be better recorded in a small book. Each complicated part of his life would be a chapter. There would be chapters about death, abandonment, sexual abuse, and drug abuse. It wouldn’t be an easy read. It would require breaks in between chapters to restock the Kleenex supply and take a mind-clearing walk. If the shocking tragedies of Jed’s life were put into a book, it would be titled, Life At Age Nine.
Jed doesn’t look like he is nine years old. He is too small for his age; a result of malnourishment and too much glue and marijuana. He talks quietly. He sits on his hands and sways back and forth while answering simple questions. When we interviewed Jed, we didn’t get very much out of him besides the basics. The more gritty details came from the social workers after the interview.
According to Jed, his father died at an age he can’t remember. Shortly after that, his mother left him. She isn’t a part of his life anymore. Asking Jed to talk about his mother is like asking him to talk about the nurse that delivered him; just somebody from his past who did a few nice things for him.
Jed’s real mother figure was an aunt who took him in after he was abandoned. Jed didn’t say anything particularly bad about his aunt other than that at age seven, she kicked him out. He didn’t tell us why. At the time, Jed probably didn’t comprehend why.
He went to the streets where he lived a typical street life. He stole, begged, collected recyclables, had a few street fights, hid from the police, slept in odd places, sniffed glue, and smoked marijuana. Jed was the first child who I met who freely talked about marijuana. Most children talk about glue without being coaxed. It is a major part of their lives. But, marijuana is different. It is too expensive for children living on the streets. Apparently Jed found a discount dealer because he admitted using more marijuana than glue. His social workers confirmed Jed’s heavy use of marijuana and said that they had to treat him for his desire for more weed where they have to treat other kids for their cravings for glue.
After two years on the streets, Undugu found Jed and brought him to Kitengela. The dorms at Kitengela are split by gender. The girls sleep in one building and the boys sleep in the other building. But, amongst the boys, there are two different dorms. The boys older than ten sleep in one dorm while the boys younger than ten sleep in the other dorm. Age ten is a rough guideline used to separate the rape victims from the non-rape victims. It is the saddest truth about life on the streets. Most girls are raped and most young boys are raped. Some are raped more than once. Jed is no exception.
When I first visited Kitengela, the center’s director told me about the rape issue. But, I was still confused about why the need to separate the older boys from the younger boys. I have since learned that the rapists on the streets aren’t always predatory adults, but are often older street children. Kitengela is supposed to be a place where children can live without fear. To create that place, children who have been victimized need to know that nobody around them will harm then. I’d like to believe that the older children at Kitengela wouldn’t even think about hurting the younger children. Whether that is true or not, Undugu still separates them so that the younger kids can sleep at night with ease.
Jed learned a lot on the streets; too much. But, Jed’s education actually started while he was still living with his aunt. It goes back to the reason he was kicked out of his aunt’s house.
One day, Jed saw one of the house servants sexually abusing his younger female cousin. He was seven years old and didn’t understand it. The house servant was caught and taken to jail. Later, Jed was caught sexually abusing the same cousin. At age seven, he was branded a predator and kicked out. But, how can a seven year old, especially one with limited development opportunities, know how to be a predator? Is he a predator or is he confused? And how does a mother who loves her daughter and also has a limited understanding of a seven year old’s mentality deal with the situation? It is a case where everybody involved is a victim. There are no easy answers. But, what’s done is done and now it’s time to pick up the pieces.
At the young age of nine, that’s what Jed’s life is; a variety of pieces that have to somehow be put together to create a future. Jed’s pieces are being put together with the help of the social workers at the Kitengela Center. He told us that his social workers are like mothers. He loves them the way a child loves his mother. They are giving Jed and the other children at Kitengela just what they all yearn for; acceptance, understanding, and love.
Two years ago, shortly before running away from home, Margaret’s older sister gave her a necklace; a piece of carved cow bone that looks somewhat like a white bullet. It hangs from a slight piece of black leather. It’s the type of traditional necklace that the Maasai people hawk to tourists on safari. While talking, Margaret nervously puts two fingers on the necklace and slowly slides the piece of jewelry from side to side.
The necklace is out of place as it rests on the white collar of her red and white checkered dress. Out of place, like Margaret. Margaret is staying at Undugu’s Kitengela children’s center, yet she doesn’t talk with the ease of the other children who know they are in a safe place. She’s not at ease with her surroundings, probably never has been. Her answers to questions don’t always make sense. After talking to her, the interpreter openly doubted the truth of some of the answers. There were holes in her story about where she’s been and where she wants to go.
Whether accurate or not, Margaret’s story is that she left home after being beaten at school for not wearing the proper uniform. Out of school, her mother made her collect gravel to help the poor family make ends meet. It wasn’t a happy life, so at age 11, she ran away.
Margaret wants to live with the sister who gave her the necklace. Her sister got married just before Margaret ran away and is living with her husband. Margaret couldn’t tell us where they were living or what they were doing. We later talked to the social workers that have been helping her. They have failed to find the sister that Margaret talks about so admiringly. Even other family members can’t tell them where she is. There are doubts that the sister is actually married and living the blissful type of life that would afford her the ability to care for a younger sister. She could be living on the streets the same way Margaret did for two years.
The social workers also filled in a few other holes about Margaret’s story. Margaret never told us that she was actually taken home one week before I met her, after spending five months in Undugu’s Kitengela Center. Undugu had counseled with her and her family and thought that the time was right for her to move home. It wasn’t. After two days at home with her parents, Margaret ran away again. Undugu heard she was on the streets and rescued her a second time. The social workers don’t know what to do next. Do they continue to search for the elusive sister or try to work with the family again? Nobody knows what is best. But, everybody knows what Margaret wants. Even as she said goodbye, she continued to trace the piece of cow bone hanging from her neck with her index finger. Somewhere, there is a sister that is connected to that necklace and Margaret wants to find her.
I was standing with a coworker in the slum of Milongo Kubwa when a smiley guy in a bright yellow soccer jersey approached us. He had a young boy in tow with a thick, blood-stained bandage wrapped around his head. The guy in the yellow was David. He is 26 years old and is the chairman of Undugu’s newest street association. The boy he brought to us needed medical attention after getting bashed with a rock during a street fight.
While my coworker talked to the younger boy with the bandage and made the arrangements to get a letter admitting him to the hospital for treatment, I talked to David. David is a charismatic man who cares for the kids in the slums. He is also a product of the streets himself.
When David was ten years old, he boarded a bus in his home town and found his way to the streets of Nairobi. His coming to the streets is typical of so many other children who end up on the streets. But, David’s subsequent rise above the streets is not typical.
When David first arrived on the streets, he made a living doing the usual work of a street child; collecting plastics from garbage piles and reselling them as recyclables. David has a natural confidence and charm that assisted him in making some important contacts on the streets. One of those contacts taught him how to do basic wiring and electrical work. He learned fast and was eventually doing odd electrical jobs for people in the slum; fixing radios, wiring lights, even connecting the pirated electricity that strings from established buildings to the shanties of the slums.
In 1998, after being on the streets for seven years, he earned enough money to start renting a one room shanty. He still lives there and runs his electrician business from his home.
David is a role model for hundreds of children living on the streets. In spite of the rough blows that got him started on the streets, he has managed to create his own small business with an honest income and the dignity that comes with it. That should make him proud. But, if you ask David what his proudest accomplishment is, he doesn’t talk about his electrical work. Instead, he will tell you that he is proudest of kicking drugs. Like most people who grew up on the streets, David has a history of heavy drug use; mostly glue and other cheap inhalants.
Now, David is the chairman of an Undugu Street Association and he says the biggest challenge is getting the children living on the streets to stop sniffing glue. He recognizes that sniffing glue for these children is much more than an occasional recreational high; it is a constant abuse that takes them away from hunger and cold while making them brain dead. Rehabilitation of street children can’t even start until they are sobered enough to think straight. For children to someday be like David and earn their own incomes, they have to stop spending their nights and days clutching a bottle of glue.
David is dedicated to helping children accomplish this. That is why Undugu recruited him to chair a street association. One of the first things that David did was lead his association in choosing a name. They chose to be known as “Badalika, Uishi Poa,” which is Swahili for “Change, For a Better Life.” David has done just that with his own life, now he is helping others do the same.
Susan is 22 and has an awkward smile. Nevertheless, it is a contagious smile. Something about her has a light of happiness. When I met her, I watched her interact with some of the other children and youth who were around us and got the idea that Susan was a bit of a joker. When I started asking some of the children questions, she was eager to also be asked. She squeezed her way onto the bench right next to me, even cutting off the translator. Her persistence made me laugh. So, I asked her some questions.
She began by telling me about her long-lived toothache (perhaps the cause of the crooked smile). That afternoon, she had an appointment to have the tooth pulled at a free healthcare clinic in the area (perhaps the cause of the smile in general).
From the tooth, we went on to more serious matters. I found out that she came to the streets of Nairobi when she was 15. By this time, I had heard a few people tell me why they came to the streets and I realized that somebody who lives on the streets often recites how they got there. They tell the story with the ease that only comes with repetition. I wonder if they sit together at nights around fires in alleyways and try to one up each other with their stories. They tell it the same way anybody tells about a hallmark moment in their life; like going through a bad breakup or having your first run-in with the law.
Susan’s story is about a grandmother who accused her of stealing and then arranged for the neighbors to beat her as punishment. Susan didn’t like it, so she ran away.
Susan has now lived on the streets for seven years and the grandmother is nothing more than a distant memory. In that time she has had two children. The first child is deceased. After a few months, the child’s stomach swelled and Susan took him to the hospital. There, the baby died.
I asked about the other child and she immediately stood up, went behind a few onlookers, and retrieved a 4 ½ year old boy from playing in the dirt. She brought him back to the bench and introduced me to James, a small boy burying his head in his mother’s chest. He was incredibly shy and may have also been a bit scared by the whiteness of my skin.
Raising a baby is a challenge for anyone, especially a mother with no education living in poverty. But, there is an ironic advantage to having a baby on the streets. They are good for begging. I’ve seen several girls begging in the streets while holding a baby. I have a friend who pointed me to an article in the New Yorker about a family living in Kibera. The family made their greatest income from begging. Each member of the family would take a turn spending a day with the baby on their hip while asking for coins in the Nairobi city center. Babies gain sympathies that translate into greater donations. Together, Susan and James make enough money from begging to rent a one room shack in the slum of Milongo Kubwa. Susan speaks of begging as if it is a nine to five job. It isn’t a last resort; it’s an income generating activity.
Susan doesn’t want to spend her life begging. Her greatest hope for her future is to take a sewing course. She wants to be a dressmaker. I’ve met several other children from the streets who have been enrolled in similar courses as a part of Undugu’s Informal Skills Program. It’s a possibility for Susan. Such an opportunity would mean a steady income and a new world of opportunity for her son. Someday, there could be a small seamstress shop in Nairobi with a woman peering around a sewing machine with an odd but flattering smile; a smile that says something about mischievousness, laughter, motherhood, and accomplishment. “I made it,” the smile will say.
The streets don’t favor one gender over another. Girls are just as easily taken to the streets as boys. But, it is harder to rescue a girl than a boy. There are several reasons for this; sometimes girls become attached to a boy on the streets and sometimes they find an income in prostitution. Prostitution also makes it difficult for organizations like Undugu to contact girls living on the streets since they spend the days sleeping and the nights working. Undugu has tried to correct this problem by occasionally entering the streets at night to identify girls ready for rehabilitation. Yet, when I look at the rosters of children being rehabilitated by Undugu, I still see a large majority of boys. I wanted to understand this better and I wanted to highlight some of the girls living on the streets, so I accompanied my coworker, Marcella, to meet some of the girls she works with. That’s where I met Jane.
Jane was born in the slum of Mathare. There, she spent the first years of her life with her parents and her older brother. Her father died first of Tuberculosis. Her mother died later of what Jane described as a bewitching. She said her mother just started saying strange things and went crazy, so they took her to Kenyatta Hospital where she died shortly thereafter. Jane couldn’t explain her death beyond calling it a bewitching. She also can’t remember exactly how old she was when her mother died, but she must have been young. She has been raised by the streets ever since.
I asked Jane where her older brother was and she said he was “around.” Turns out, she meant it quite literally. She turned to one of the younger boys who was watching our conversation, put her finger on his sweater emblazoned with a soiled Winnie the Pooh, and gave him specific instructions on where to find her brother. Ten minutes later, Peter showed up.
Peter and Jane sat side by side with the ease of siblings. Neither of them could tell me exactly how old they were when their mom died and they left for the streets. Now, Jane is 18 and Peter is 25.
I have a sister that is seven years my elder, just as Peter is to Jane. I can’t comprehend if Lisa and I would have had to survive our childhoods on the streets together. I tried to get some picture of how Peter and Jane helped each other, but couldn’t quite get it out of them. I realized that when all you know of life is scraping by to survive, you don’t have the luxury of reflection to explain how you did it; you just did it. And they’re still doing it. They maintain their existence by collecting plastics to be sold and by doing others’ laundry. Still, they don’t make enough to have a home. Peter sleeps in a lot filled with handcarts and Jane sleeps at a cousin’s place in a nearby slum on most nights.
Jane doesn’t have any kids, but Peter does. His baby is a few months old and lives with the mother and her aunt in a nearby slum. Peter sees the baby every now and then. He speaks about his baby with a bit of pride. Jane speaks of the baby with the same pride, as if it were her own. They named the baby together. It’s a name that speaks volumes. Esther Kanini. It was their mother’s name.
When I was a kid, I had good friends. I was lucky. My friends never peer pressured me to do anything inappropriate (except for a few harmless bottle rockets and maybe a few eggs (maybe)). I remember one time in eleventh grade, a friend and I ended up at a party full of underage drinkers and one of the drinkers insisted that I hold a can of Pepsi. He called it my “safety can.” Ha! Even the drinkers were pressuring me NOT to drink. Needless to say, I was lucky to have great friends who pushed each other in good directions. I realize that I’m unique. Most teenagers aren’t that lucky.
I met one of those teenagers recently. Her name is Regina and she is 17 years old. She has been living on the streets for three years. Regina is unique because she didn’t leave home due to poverty, abuse, or the death of a parent like other children living on the streets. She left home simply because her friends were leaving home.
Before coming to the streets, Regina was living with her mom in Buruburu, a neighborhood in Nairobi. They weren’t living in a bad place. Regina had no complaints of abuse and said that her mom had enough money for food and other provisions. But, Regina had friends who came from less fortunate homes. They were the children who were running away because of hunger and abuse. At age 14, a girl wants to be with her friends. So, Regina joined them in the streets.
At the time, Regina didn’t realize what she was getting into. She left a home with a mother who loved her for the streets where she learned how to beg, steal, use drugs, suffer harassment, and make money through questionable means. She has now completed her three years of street education and wants to go back home.
She asked for help from Undugu. She needs someone to help her apologize to her mother for running away. I imagine her mother will take her back.
Regina’s story left one big “huh?” in my mind. I don’t understand why a child with no complaints about home would choose to be homeless, hungry, and cold. There may be parts of Regina’s story that I don’t know about. There could have been other strong factors pulling her to the streets. There could have been a boyfriend on the streets. She might have actually ran away to live with someone else and when it didn’t work out, she took to the streets. Regardless of why Regina went to the streets, her story still shows something about street life in Kenyan culture. It is accepted by too many people. Children readily accept the option of living on the streets and society readily accepts their place on the streets.
When I was a child, I would have never considered leaving home for the streets because I had never heard of a child living on the streets. It wasn’t part of the culture that I grew up in. But, in Kenya, the street child has been institutionalized in the culture. They are easily accepted as a nuisance, but not as a priority. This has to change. The culture of apathy towards children has to change. If more people talked about street life as if it were an awful tragedy, and not just a common-place struggle, children like Regina would never give in to the streets so easily.
I was with some street kids the other day when a 13 year old boy asked me what time it was where I come from. The boy had a boastful smile, spoke broken English, and wore a pair of silver rimmed glasses with no lenses. I looked at my watch and subtracted seven hours to find that it was three AM in Washington, D.C. He then proudly said to me, “do you know that in London it is six o’clock?” He laughed before I could respond.
He then asked where I was from. “America,” I said. His questions continued, “Do you know Bush?” I decided to play along and told him that yes, I did know Bush. “Oh, he a big man,” he told me while flexing his arms and imitating what he saw as the President of the United States. I asked him if he knew Kibaki, the President of Kenya. He played along also and said that yes, he did know Kibaki. Then, he flexed his muscles again and said, “He my President.” It made me laugh.
Kids are kids even if they live on the streets. Kids want to have fun. Kids want to laugh. Kids want to tease the very-out-of-place American man in the middle of the slum. It’s harder for kids living on the streets to laugh, but this kid did it and he made me laugh, too.
When I first got to the slums, it was hard to look past the tragedies to see kids having fun. Now, I see it. Streets make kids grow up fast, but they don’t kill their need for laughter.
I attended one of Undugu’s Street Association Soccer Tournaments a couple of weeks ago. Watching a soccer game played by children who have lived a good portion of their lives on the streets is an interesting experience. They don’t seem to be bothered by the mud and puddles. Their performance also has little to do with their footwear; about a quarter of the team played barefoot, a quarter of the team wore second-hand shoes, and the other half of the team shared shoes. Sharing shoes doesn't mean they switched on the sidelines; it means that one guy wore the left shoe while his buddy wore the right shoe. It was quite a sight.
The goalie for the Mugoya Association Team was David. David’s story is quite typical of many children who have grown up on the streets. He left home at age 12 when his mother was too ill to care for him. Since then, both parents have died. He hasn’t received any secondary education, has struggled with drug abuse, sleeps on the streets, and makes a small income by doing small sweeping jobs and by collecting plastics and metals from piles of garbage. But there is something incredibly unique about David also. He wants to be a preacher.
The preacher conversation came up when I asked him what his greatest challenge in life was. I expected him to tell me it was finding food or kicking drugs. Instead, he told me his greatest challenge was to know more about God. Somebody’s been paying attention in Sunday school. His answer actually shocked me. David is one of those people who could understandably doubt God’s good will or even his presence due to some of his obvious hardships. But, he doesn’t. Instead, he occasionally attends the African Divine Church, which has a make-shift chapel in the slum where he sleeps.
David talked about God for a few minutes. He used a few stock phrases about God that he has probably absorbed from his preacher at church. At one point, he referred to the “goodness of God.” I was curious about what a boy who has spent one-third of his life sleeping on the streets would say about the “goodness of God.” His English was limited, but he still managed to tell me that God blessed him to be a goalie for the soccer team. Then, he said he needs God’s help to change his life and “clean up.”
I wasn't sure what he meant by “clean up.” But, towards the end of our conversation, he took out a glass liquor bottle with an inch of clear liquid in the bottom. As he removed the lid, a quick smell proved that it wasn’t any kind of liquor in the bottom of that bottle, but it was paint thinner. He used the thinner to moisten a small handkerchief and then began sniffing the handkerchief. I asked him what he was doing. He answered with two words, “standard dinner.” It numbs cold limbs and suppresses hunger.
I stayed long enough to think about the previous conversation while watching David sit on the ground and huddle over his illicit handkerchief. I realized that these children have a perfect understanding of the realities of their lives, like the “standard dinner.” However, they still maintain some hopes and dreams that are quite removed from their current situation, like being a preacher. Some of their hopes are fantastic and even farfetched. Some might come true, but some won’t. How does a street child reconcile the fact that the realities of his own life may never offer him the opportunities necessary to be a preacher? I’m not sure. But, sometimes just having the hope is enough to sustain us through the realities of life.
INNOCENCE ON THE STREET
Eric is a twelve year old boy originally from the town of Muranga, about 50 kilometers south of Nairobi. He has a round face and solemn eyes that accentuate his shyness. While interviewed he looked at the ground, except for when tuning into the translator’s words. While being interviewed, he fidgeted with a piece of grass, then a twig, and then a piece of grass again.
He was interviewed by my friend Becky, a fellow American law student who I met in China and randomly ended up seeing in Nairobi (small world). She came with me to one of Undugu’s Street Associations one day to help interview a few of the children. Eric’s story had an impact on Becky. She said that before interviewing Eric, she would guard her pockets and walk as fast as possible through the hordes of street children that sometimes targeted her with their begging. After Eric, she said she wanted to be a bit freer with her pocket change.
Eric has only been living on the streets of Nairobi for two weeks. In a world where some children are second or even third generation street dwellers, Eric’s recent arrival is unique.
Eric is an orphan. His mother died and his father is unknown. Becky didn’t ask how his mother died, but she did try to offer her condolences for his deceased mother. Eric responded with a blank stare towards the dirt.
After Eric’s mother died, he was taken into a home for orphans. He ran away two weeks ago after being beaten for not doing his chores. It’s a tragic irony that a home created to save orphans pushed one into the streets with a short-tempered beating.
Eric’s greenness to the streets is obvious. He hasn’t yet discovered glue or other street drugs. He doesn’t yet mix with the other street children with the kind of brash confidence required for survival on the streets. I imagine he is still being assimilated into the informal society that exists on the streets. Sure enough, the make-shift governing body of the gang in his neighborhood has their eyes on him. Sizing him up. Intimidating him a bit. Getting ready to demand his loyalty.
Eric told us that he sleeps in the brush. After a few more weeks on the streets, he might gain enough standing to claim a more substantial piece of ground; maybe under a bus stop or in a secluded corner of an alleyway.
Eric has been more fortunate than many children who run to the streets. He spent his first few days begging for just enough money to buy some bread. Then, a woman took to him--perhaps impressed by his innocent face--and began buying him food every day. I don’t know who this woman is, but somewhere in Nairobi there is a woman who takes a moment out of her daily commute to feed a homeless child. I hope she’s blessed for it.
Eric is also lucky because he has already been identified by Undugu. His future is going to be much easier than many street children as he already has an organization that is interested in getting him off the streets. Months from now, he could be enrolled in one of Undugu’s Basic Education Programs or be living at Undugu’s rehabilitation center why a relative is identified to take him in. I’m hopeful for Eric. I especially hope that he gets off of the streets while he still has that innocent look to his face.
Every morning, as a part of my commute, I pass the same boy. He seems to be about 16 years old and he sits on the same stoop in downtown Nairobi with a tin cup at his feet with a few shillings in it. He wears the same blue hooded sweatshirt and green slacks. The boy sits in silence and stares forward as the business suits of Nairobi pass him; some giving a shilling, some not. The boy is blind. His eyes are swollen and open just enough to show two slits of white to the world.
The first time I saw him, my heart ached. Then, I saw him day after day, sitting on the same stoop, with the same blue sweatshirt and the same tin cup. Regretfully, human nature took its toll and I became desensitized to the boy. He turned from being the tragic character of my morning commute to just being a landmark reminding me that I was 25 minutes away from my destination.
I don’t like that feeling. I believe in individualism. Yet in my own mind, I let that boy go from being an individual with some unique needs to just being a fixture of Kenyatta Avenue. I feel sick for it. I feel guilty for no longer struggling to pass him with confidence. I feel guilty for forgetting that he is an individual with some mass of potential and worth. After seeing him day after day, he became a part of just another statistic. In spite of their necessity, I don’t like statistics for their base generalizations.
One statistic that I have read several times in the past couple of months is 60,000. There are an estimated 60,000 children in Nairobi living on the streets. That’s more people than live in Idaho Falls, the town I grew up in. It’s hard to fathom what that 60,000 actually represents. It doesn’t just represent a mass of homeless children; it actually represents unique children with histories and hopes that are individual to them only. It is important for me, and others, to remember that the statistic is more than a cold, base number. It is a symbol of something much greater.
I don’t want to forget that the children in the streets of Nairobi are more than a statistic. To do this, I am going to highlight some of the children I have met in the streets. In the next few weeks, I will try to show you what makes each child unique. I hope you will read some of their stories. I’m going to begin by introducing you to Eric.
I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro last week. It was amazing. My inner nature-loving nerd was very much in his element for six days of trekking through the wilderness. But, while climbing and taking advantage of the overabundance of time to think, I was reminded of one of the main reasons children are pushed to live on the streets; simple poverty.
In East Africa, even at 19,000 feet, one can’t escape the fact that sometimes the best jobs still don’t pay enough to help a family escape poverty. On Mt. Kilimanjaro, I was reminded of this by watching the many porters that scaled the mountain carrying more than one-hundred pounds of food and equipment. It is these porters that make Kilimanjaro such an accessible mountain in spite of its size and height.
I climbed the mountain with my friend, Jonathan (yes, we were referred to by other climbing teams as “Team Jonathan”). For the two of us, we had two guides and four porters. Before you call us pansies, I should tell you that this is typical. Another group who we became friends with (Team Canada) had 10 porters and two guides for a climbing team of three people. Yet, another group of 7 hikers (Team NATO) had 25 porters. The mountain is climbed by an army of porters who are there to help just a few tourists get to the top.
Porters work hard. I can’t quite describe how hard they work. But, imagine climbing for four days with a five gallon propane tank balanced on your head. Or imagine doing it with a portable kitchen on your head and two backpacks full of equipment strapped to your back. It’s not easy.
In spite of the challenge of the work, it is a sought after position. When leaving the bus stations in nearby Moshi or Arusha, one is accosted by several hopeful-porters wanting to be hired by the brave climber who would rather hire his own crew than go through a climbing company. The number of young men clamoring to be a porter shows just how little opportunity there is in the local economy.
The weakness of the economy really comes to light when you find out how much each porter is paid. While climbing, Jonathan and I began calculating how much we had paid our tour company for our mountain experience and started to estimate how it was divvied up between park fees, paychecks, equipment, and transportation costs. We figured that each porter was paid $18 to $20 for 6 days of work. Ouch!!! I’ve never felt like such an imperialist before. Our climbing company gave us guidelines of how much to tip each porter at the end of the week. Even with the amount they suggested, each porter would only take home $50. Ouch, again!!!
Jonathan and I spent a lot of time discussing how much money to give the porters. We considered what $50 can buy in the local economy and mentioned that it was better than the alternative of having no work at all. A second hand coat is only $4. A hotel room is only $5. How could we afford to give more? We’re students, after all. But, we returned to the topic again and again and each time we would increase our tips by a few bucks. These porters have children. There’s no way any of these porters can afford health insurance. $50 for a week of hard work is exploitation. These are parents. These porters are killing their bodies for a pittance of a paycheck. By the end of the reoccurring conversation, we had committed to give well over the suggested tip amount.
Besides being a firm believer in tipping karma, I couldn’t help but think about the children of these porters. Children are expensive and I don’t think a $50 income once or twice a month could pay for the health and education of a child. Even if it could pay for the needs of a child, the porters had earned more than $50 for their work.
At the end of the week, when we gave everyone their tips, the smiles on the faces of the porters made us glad we had given a bit extra. Yet, after leaving the mountain, I woke up one night and thought more about how much we gave them. I figured that even if every climber tipped over the suggested tip amount, the porters would still not be making enough to provide basic healthcare for their children. Ouch!!! My mind flooded with needs that couldn’t be met. And in the back of my mind, there was the constant nagging of the thought that the children of these porters are some of the children who are the most at risk of becoming street children.
Why does a society have police forces? Is it so that they can intimidate children living on the streets? Is it so that they can harass a young girl on her way home from a club on a Saturday night? Is it so that they can harass and embarrass a taxi driver into the point of bribery? Or is it so that they can shoot and kill the innocent? The answers are NO! But nobody told the police of Nairobi.
I have been with street children when the police come around. They bring fear, intimidation, and cold stares. They carry rifles (sometimes AK-47s) for intimidation and clubs for Rodney King. They’re a force drunk on power and they use it on children drunk on hopelessness.
Another time, I sat in my friend’s car in the middle of the road in the late hours of a Saturday night after an evening of dancing, while the police questioned her on the side of the road. What had she done? Nothing, except be a young, well-dressed, Kenyan woman driving an expensive car full of friends. Yeah, she must be a criminal.
Then, recently my loyal taxi driver who has picked me up all over this town at all hours of day and night was stopped at a police checkpoint. No big deal, I thought. It happens all the time in Nairobi. But, this time it was a big deal. We hadn’t fastened our seat belts yet (lesson learned), which was apparently cause for the driver to be questioned at the rear of the car. When he got back in the car, I asked him if he had to bribe the cop. He gave a soft “no,” and then slipped his wallet back into his pocket.
These are events that Kenyans live with. Street children grow used to state-sponsored intimidation, and drivers grow used to purposeless questioning that sometimes ends in a bribe. But, Kenyans never grow used to the killing of the innocent by the police. No matter how much it happens, murder is murder, even if it wears a badge.
My coworker’s husband was shot on Friday. He was shot three times while unarmed and lying in the grass. He was shot by a plainclothes police officer who was misinterpreted as a common thug engaging in a common carjacking.
A policeman with little training, less restraint, a gun, and three bullets killed a father who simply lied in the grass fearing who he thought was a carjacking thug. It does more than break my heart, it makes it bleed.
I sat down with an eighteen year old boy the other day to interview him for a project I’m working on to highlight some of the street children who have been helped by Undugu. We sat eye to eye in the grass at the edge of a soccer field in Eastern Nairobi. I balanced my notebook on my leg and took notes as he laid out his biography for me in simple English phrases.
I asked him where he slept at night. I knew the answer before I asked it. I knew he slept on the street. But, in the name of accuracy, I asked anyway. He answered as I expected, “the streets in Mugoya.” I slowly wrote the word, M-U-G-O-Y-A; one letter at a time. Then, I traced each letter again while concentrating on my notebook, avoiding eye contact. I traced the letters a third time while digesting the thought of this boy sleeping on the street. I may have known it before I asked it, but I didn’t really grasp it until he told me. He sleeps on the streets……sleeps ON the streets…..on the dirt….on pavement….under stairwells…..under bus stops….in a field….in an alley….actually sleeps on the streets of Mugoya.
How much does a pile of dirt cost? It’s a big pile. I don’t know its exact size. But, I bet it would fill a medium-sized dump truck. It took a full day of hard work for one man to gather the pile. He gathered it by scraping mud off of the bottom of Lake Victoria on the border of Western Kenya. He hauled the mud to shore in a small paddleboat where he unloaded the mud one shovel at a time. Then, he worked the mud with a shovel for hours in the coming days so that the sunshine could change it from mud to sand. How much has that man earned for creating that large pile of sand?
As a former economics major, that’s a question that interests me. I would consider the scarcity of the sand, the demand of the sand, the closest available substitute for the sand, the transportation costs required to get the sand from the lake to where it is needed, the alternative forms of employment that this man could engage in, and many other market factors that would determine how much that man should be paid for gathering the sand. I haven’t taken the time to actually research the sand market in Kenya to determine how much he should be paid for that sand. But, if I did, I would imagine that the labor of the man who painstakingly created that pile of sand is worth more than 700 Kenyan Shillings (a bit more than $10), which is what he is currently getting paid.
If he sales a sand pile every few days, 700 Kenyan Shillings per pile isn’t too bad of an income compared to what millions of Kenyans living below the poverty line bring home (or don’t bring home) everyday. But, then consider this: that same pile of sand will be bought by a truck driver who will haul it to the city and sale it for 27,000 Kenyan Shillings (about $430). It doesn’t take any detailed research or dedicated analysis of the transportation industry in Kenya to know that the man who broke his back hauling that sand should be receiving more than 700 Kenyan Shillings for his labor. So, I figure the price for exploitation in the Kenyan sand market is only 700 Kenyan Shillings. That makes exploitation a very appealing business to get into.
I met one of the men who spends his days creating sand piles for such meager wages. He is a part of a community that Undugu has selected to work with because it is among the poorest region in all of Kenya. The children living in this area have the greatest risk of becoming street children. They are engaged in child labor, don’t attend school, often suffer abuse and neglect, and face the hunger pains and sicknesses that accompany poverty. It happens more often than not that this child will leave home and walk to the nearest city to finish out his childhood sleeping on the streets and filling his stomach through begging.
Undugu’s approach to helping the family of this child is to prevent that child from becoming a street child. Undugu does this through several programs. All of the programs can be nicely organized under a bold heading of EMPOWERMENT.
Empowerment is a popular word at Undugu. It is at the heart of Undugu’s new Lobbying and Advocacy program. Empowering community members to understand abilities; to address social issues that effect them; to receive incomes that are fair and well-earned; to demand the services that they have been promised by the government; and to assert their rights.
All of this empowerment is usually expressed through well-planned programs. But, when we met the sand harvester who was earning 700 Kenyan Shillings for his hard labor, I watched Undugu’s staff kick out some passionate and spontaneous empowerment. Immediately, staff members began explaining to this man how he could demand higher payment. They spouted off some basic business and economics lessons. They were answering the economic questions that I earlier considered and all of those answers were convincing this man that he should be demanding more money than he was getting for his pile of sand. As the man quietly listened to what they were telling him, he was being empowered. With the basic information that Undugu was telling him, he will be empowered to demand twice, triple, or quadruple what he is getting paid for his sand right now. And when the buyer tries to tell him that he can’t afford it or that he can just go elsewhere for cheap sand, the sand harvester will be able to call his bluff because he will have been empowered by the information that Undugu gave him.
My first weekend in Nairobi, I went out with my coworker and his wife. They are young and intelligent recent graduates with good jobs and the potential for very successful careers. We went to an Indian restaurant with a several page wine list, formal servers, and a décor that could be found in any of the finest restaurants in Washington, D.C. I looked at the tables around us and realized that a new generation of Kenyans surrounded us. This new generation has opportunities in education and business that weren’t available to their parents’ generation. They own cars, ipods, fancy cell phones, and will probably own homes in the near future if they don’t already. They are a sign of the economic development in Kenya.
I made comments about the new, young, successful middle class in Kenya to friends and family in e-mails and phone conversations. Then, two days ago, the Washington Post confirmed my observations with its article, “Kenya’s Middle Class Home-Buying Boom” For the first time in history, Kenyans are buying homes with all the modern conveniences, fashions, and status that can be found in any developed country. I’m seeing this everywhere I go. Kenya’s economy is developing and people--especially the young, recently educated--are reaping the benefits. It’s a wonderful thing. But, with all this important and critical development of a new middle class is the constant reminder of the immense poverty that still penetrates Kenya.
Such dichotomy between rich and poor exists everywhere in the world. At home, In Washington, D.C., the dichotomy aligns with the boundaries between the Northwest quadrant and the Southeast quadrant. When I lived in Utah, the dichotomy split between those who lived east of the valley and those who lived west of the valley. In high school, it was the numbered streets and lettered streets vs. the streets with names like Wisteria Lane.
In Nairobi, the separation is less distinct. Slums butt up against gated communities and street children weave in and out of young professionals in stilettos and suits commuting to and from salaried jobs. The poverty in Nairobi is evident everywhere and you can’t avoid it, even if you do live in a new up-scale housing development. In my opinion, visibility of poverty is a wonderful thing. If Kenyans--and the world--are going to help the poorest of the poor, they have to feel poverty slap them in the face. Last night, the hand of poverty slapped me.
The evening began when I met up with a group of American law students studying/working in Nairobi for the summer. We went to an upscale restaurant with prices that much to the dismay of my wallet, matched prices in the United States. The restaurant was classy; the food was delicious; the service was perfect; and the evening was comfortable. Some of the other students pointed out their Kenyan law professors from the University of Nairobi at the next table. Once again, the nouveau riche of Kenya surrounded us.
After paying the bill, we strolled into the Nairobi night as we walked back to the apartment complex where most of them are living. It’s an apartment complex that I have dubbed the “green zone” of Nairobi. It is a complex mostly populated by foreigners walled in by intense security so that they can enjoy their manicured lawns, well-kept swimming pool, and Wi-fi signal.
Halfway through our walk, street children with open palms overtook us. They pointed to their mouths and in English and Swahili begged for our pocket change. There was 10 of us and about 15 of them. Their ages seemed to range between 8 and 12. One of them was a girl who kept to the fringes of the group while she balanced a baby on her hip. I have seen street children in many parts of the world. But, these street children were different. Usually, after giving a few coins to a begging child, they leave. But not these children. They continued to beg. A couple of them wailed with wide-open mouths in an attempt to grab our attention. They weaved between us as they tugged at our jackets and reached up to grab our arms. They aggressively cut us off and stared at our faces. They felt the outsides of our pockets for contents and they put us in a general state of confusion. These children were desperate.
As a group, we collectively tried to tell the children in plain English and basic Swahili, “We’re sorry,” “Hakuna pesa,” “Please, Leave us, now,” and on and on. Two of the girls in our group linked arms securely as they helped each other hold back tears that developed into sobs. When we approached the gate of the “green zone” apartments, the security guards appeared and the kids scrammed! Poverty had just slapped us. As we regained composure and reeled from the slapping, many of us agreed that though it was not a pleasant experience, it was a valuable experience.
People who come to Nairobi see poverty. It affects how they feel and pings at their hearts. Nobody is comfortable seeing it. So, what do we do about it? Do we simply let the slums become more insular and enclosed? Do we allow the rich and poor to comfortably separate and disassociate? Or, do we support changes and policies that actually address the roots of poverty? Do we just hand a shilling to a street child or do we elect politicians that will make healthcare for his single mother dieing of AIDS affordable and obtainable? The answers to these questions are obvious, but putting those answers into actions takes dedication. I hope the new class of Kenyans with education, opportunity, and bank accounts will have that dedication. And for the rest of us in the world who might live on the developed side of the international dichotomy, I hope that we will join the new class of Kenyans in helping those still living in poverty.
The arbitrary arrest of a street child is common. Slums are big, confusing, and dangerous. Police are not always methodical in the way they try to enforce security in a slum. To feel like their doing something productive, they make some random arrests here and there. The greatest victim of such miscalculated police work is the street child. That child may have done nothing wrong other than sleep on the street, or try to make a buck by washing a willing customer’s car without a business license.
Undugu cares about street children and doesn’t want them to have to sleep on the streets. However, Undugu also doesn’t want them unjustly sleeping in a jail cell. That’s why Undugu has created the Undugu Street Association card, or what I consider, the get out of jail free card. Holders of the card are members of Undugu’s Street Associations.
Undugu creates the associations by first identifying a gang made up of street children. Their ages generally range from eight to 20 and though they call themselves gangs, they don’t have violent criminal intentions or organized criminal activities, but rather engage in some mischievous pick pocketing, begging, and petty theft. With Undugu’s guidance, the reformed gang members pick their leaders and set their own rules, which always forbid glue sniffing, drug use, and other illegal activities. The children then benefit as Undugu works with them to find solutions to the problems that prevent them from returning to their families, or finding a new home, or enrolling in school. The children become a positive force in a slum that needs some positive forces. However, members of the associations are still the victims of random arrests at times.
What does a member of the association do when being arrested? He shows his Undugu Street Association card to the police officer and it usually prevents his arrest (unless he actually was doing something criminal). The card has his picture, lists his name, age, tribe, occupation (most common: metal collector, recyclable collector, or handcart operator), and name of the Undugu Street Association (like the Jets or the Sharks) that the child belongs to. Sometimes, the child is arrested anyway. When he gets to the jail, he calls the number on the back of the card and someone from Undugu comes to the rescue. It’s the perfect get out of jail free card. The only catch is that for it to work the child has to actually not been doing anything illegal.
Saving street children is the core of Undugu’s mission. The problems surrounding life on the streets are great. The causes for such a life are even greater. That means that Undugu has to be creative and forward thinking in how they address the results of street life and the causes for it.
Undugu’s latest and most important approach to helping street children is to engage in some serious advocacy and lobbying work. Undugu wants to make lasting changes in policies, laws, and cultural practices that foster streetism. That’s why I’ve been sent here by The Advocacy Project; to help Undugu begin their first comprehensive advocacy and lobbying campaigns. The people at Undugu have identified three key issues to be addressed; glue sniffing, the requirement of school uniforms as a barrier to receiving “free” primary education, and the misuse of Kenya’s Devolved Funds intended to go towards development and helping the needy. In the next two months, I’m going to focus on these issues with Undugu. They are interesting issues and they affect the daily lives of millions of the world’s poorest people. The human faces attached to these issues are real. I’m going to keep writing about them and reporting on Undugu’s progress to help them through advocacy and lobbying.
Battling a disease like HIV/AIDS requires blunt and open discussion. That’s a challenge in a society where many people still attach the disease to stigma and immorality. But, the dialogue is growing more and more as people realize the realities of the disease. Undugu has joined with others in pushing that dialogue as they preach the ABC approach to prevent infection; A-Abstinence, B-Be with only one partner, and C-Condoms! The C part of the formula is still a controversy for some people in Kenya, but I recently met two people who are boldly stepping into the light of controversy. What they are doing is incredible, right, and critical to battling this disease. They are pioneers against a formidable disease.
Reverend Ephanuel Mugambi
When you’re an American living at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Nairobi, (an extremely religious community) you often get mistaken as a Christian youth minister. It’s led to some interesting discussions at times, but one discussion with Reverend Ephanuel Mugambi of the East Kenya Presbyterian Church was especially enlightening.
The Reverend approached me just after breakfast as he thought I was a part of the recently arrived delegation of Christians from Ohio, here to establish a health clinic. He was friendly and I was alone, so we kept each other company for a bit. After we talked for a while, I blurted what I really wanted to know, “What do you teach your congregation about prevention of HIV/AIDS?” I expected one answer about A and B, Abstinence and Being with only one partner. He gave me those and also threw in a C, Condoms. I was stunned. This wasn’t the African religious community that I had heard about that opposed safe sex education or the distribution of condoms.
The Reverend had my full attention and he continued to proudly tell me just how progressive he actually is regarding the prevention of HIV/AIDS. Reverend Mugambi explained that he was among the first clergy in Kenya to address the problem of HIV/AIDS. A few years ago, along with some of his fellow clergymen in the Mennonite community, he attended HIV/AIDS training. It was there that they began preaching the use of condoms as a form of prevention.
Reverend Mugambi was quick to confirm that he still believes Abstinence and loyalty to one partner are the best forms of prevention. But, in his own words, he is a “realistic member of the clergy,” and he knows that the religious leaders in Kenya have more influence than any other group of people or organization in the country. He recognizes that his influence goes beyond those who attend his or any other congregation. His advice reaches those who have never seen the inside of a church; such is the nature of the religious culture in Kenya. So, the Reverend preaches the use of condoms for those who “don’t believe and won’t respond to A and B.”
Religious leaders in Kenya are nervous to teach something that might be misunderstood as being counter to some of their main moral beliefs. But, Reverend Mugambi is showing how to preach the realistic doctrine of A,B, and C without being a heretic. Reverend Mugambi is a pioneer and his message must be shared by other members of the religious community for the spread of HIV/AIDS to be prevented. The good news, as Reverend Mugambi explained, is that it’s catching on. The Anglicans and Pentecostals are beginning to preach the use of C also.
Phelgon, A Positive Teacher
There is a small school in a neighborhood named Gonda in the city of Kisumu, Kenya. The school only has two classes; a nursery level class, and a kindergarten level class. There are about 75 students; some in uniform, some not. The floors are dirt or concrete and some of the walls are just tin. There are no computers and no sign of books. It’s not exactly a state-of-the-art learning institution, yet it happens to be one of the most forward-thinking, progressive schools in Kenya. Why? Because many of the students are HIV+ and just by looking at them, you can’t tell which ones.
Kenya is a society where children with HIV/AIDS are the victims of stigmatization and exclusion. Schools don’t want them. Sometimes, families don’t want them. And usually, the other children don’t want to play with them. That’s what makes this school so unique. Five and six year olds with HIV/AIDS are sitting mixed with healthy students, learning together and playing together.
The school is run by a woman named Phelgon. Phelgon used to teach for one of the most prestigious schools in Kisumu. She was one of its best teachers. Then, she tested positive. When word got out, the school terminated her contract. Undeterred, Phelgon started her own school and she invited the people in the community with children suffering from HIV/AIDS to enroll in her school. Many of them did. But, the amazing thing is that many students without HIV/AIDS also enrolled. In a rare event, the parents of healthy students were intentionally enrolling their children in a school with children suffering from HIV/AIDS. This is almost unheard of in Kenya.
Phelgon is teaching her students (and the community) that it is safe to play with another child infected with HIV/AIDS. She is teaching them that there is more to a child then their disease. And she is teaching them basic lessons of acceptance, support, and respect. Phelgon is doing all of this while openly discussing her own infection with HIV/AIDS with parents and community members. She has organized support groups for those infected in the community and volunteers as a health educator preaching forms of prevention.
Phelgon is on the front line in battling the inappropriate stigma that accompanies HIV/AIDS in Kenya. It is because of people like Phelgon that the next generation of Kenyans won’t be afraid to discuss HIV/AIDS or to associate with a person with HIV/AIDS. Because of Phelgon’s work, Undugu is supporting her school and her mission to teach children the truth about HIV/AIDS.
One of the last books that I read before leaving the United States was Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, (which has been extremely helpful as many Kenyans are eager to discuss the possibilities of the son of a fellow Kenyan leading the United States). In his book, Obama leaves the life of a traditional lawyer to become an activist working on behalf of the people living in inner city Chicago. His first boss in Chicago asked him what he was angry about. Apparently, according to his boss, he had to be angry about something to be motivated to advocate for the rights of the people living in the Chicago slums. I don’t think Obama directly answered the question and I’m not sure that I could answer the same question in such broad terms either. But, last Friday, I felt a little bit of what Obama’s boss was talking about; that anger that motivates us to try to fix a problem that is completely beyond us.
My anger on Friday was directed at something unusual. It was glue. More specifically, it was the glue being sniffed by a dozen boys that crowded around me with glazed eyes, slurred speech, and hands lazily outstretched for a handshake. These boys were stoned. Some of them stood in front of me hoping for a handshake without once removing the bottle of glue from their face. I was incredibly angry even though I didn’t know who exactly to be angry at. Was it the glue manufacturers, the adults who sell the glue to the kids, or the cops who don’t stop those sellers who should be blamed? Or, perhaps I should be mad at a government that doesn’t enforce its laws or any of the several factors that let a boy end up in a situation where his only way to stay warm while sleeping in an alley way on a chilly night is to sniff glue? I don’t know who I should be angry at. But, something has to be changed.
These boys are typical of the street children in the slums of Nairobi. Most of them are runaways. They left their families because they were hungry, embarrassed about something, or abused. Some have lost their parents and are too much of a burden on other family members. They sleep in alleyways and under bus stops. They rummage through garbage for recyclables and beg for money. They are also young. VERY YOUNG. Through the translation help of Charity, a Kenyatta University volunteer, I asked their ages. The most common answer: ten. Some may have been even younger. These are boys who should be playing games at recess and learning their multiplication tables. Instead, they’re living on the streets of a slum and spending most of their time in a delirious buzz.
The children need help and they want help. One boy with muddy bare feet and a shredded red sweater repeated several times in English, “I want to go to school.” He will have that opportunity if he sticks with Undugu. As we left the slum, another Kenyatta University volunteer, Aivan, stayed behind to interview the boys. He recorded their names, nicknames, ages, where they came from, and where they sleep. They are in the beginning phases of becoming an Undugu Youth Association, which is kind of like a reformed neighborhood “gang.” The youngest ones will automatically be rescued by Undugu and sent to its center outside of town for up to three months of detox, counseling, and social work to replace them with their families.
Those who remain in the slum will be organized by Undugu, with association leaders and group rules that include no glue or other illegal activities. Many of them will be enrolled in Undugu’s alternative school for children who can’t attend one of Kenya’s public schools for various reasons. The older ones can be enrolled in Undugu’s Informal Skills Technical Program where they learn to be electricians, carpenters, and other valued professionals. These boys will have a future because Undugu is channeling the anger in the right direction.
I have now been with The Undugu Society for three days. I spent yesterday and today visiting many of Undugu’s projects in the informal settlements of Nairobi. They are the slums of Nairobi and are inhabited by the poorest of the poor.
The first informal settlement I visited was Kibera, the largest slum in Africa and possibly the largest slum in the world. Bernard, my new colleague at Undugu and the director of Undugu’s Kibera project, said that 700,000 people live in Kibera. More liberal estimates (like Wikipedia) say there are 1 million people living in Kibera. Either way, that is a lot of people to put on 650 acres. A LOT OF PEOPLE! The people make up the poorest of the poor. When people talk about extreme poverty, they talk about Kibera.
I met several people in Kibera, but one of them left a particularly lasting impact on me. Her name was Mary and she is a single mother who is a part of a self-help micro loan group that was started by Undugu. I met Mary when I observed her group’s weekly meeting at Undugu’s Kibera Community Center.
When I entered the meeting, Mary was sitting with her colleagues taking turns reviewing the neatly kept ledger and making the appropriate marks. They also took turns counting the cash on the table that was made up of small bills and coins. I glanced at their ledger for the week and found that the largest loan payment was 750 Shillings (about $10.30) and the smallest loan payment was 250 Shillings (about $4.10). The numbers may have been small, but their impact was much larger. To know that, one would just have to talk to Mary and see her excitement for what they were doing.
Mary owns a small business where she sells charcoal to her neighbors living in Kibera. Without the self-help micro loan group, her business wouldn’t be possible. Mary proudly explained the process of the self-help group for me; their weekly meetings, the amount of payments, their voluntary donations to their group savings account, and the trust they have for each other.
The group was passionate about what they were doing (especially Mary). As Mary explained to me the details of her business regarding costs, prices, profits, and payments to the group account, I was reminded of a lesson that I learned several years ago while working in a similar slum in the Marshall Islands. That lesson is that living in poverty does not mean living without dignity. Mary explained to me her business structure as if she were the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She is her own boss. She earns enough money to sustain a livelihood for herself and her children. Most importantly, Mary had dignity in what she was doing. Undugu is to be credited for making this possible for Mary.
Mary is just one of several people I have met in two days who have benefited from Undugu’s services. But, her story sums up much of what Undugu is doing. They are empowering community members and giving them the tools that they need to have dignity in their lives.
I wrote the following posting three weeks ago. As you will see, at the time I was living in Beijing. For the past 5 weeks, my Internet access has depended on random Internet Cafes in Kyoto, Beijing, Bangkok, and everywhere in between. Between a few weak connections and some technical difficulties, this posting is coming a bit late. I hope that doesn’t stop you from reading it. It still shares some of my feelings in the weeks working up to joining the Undugu Society.
AFRICAN GENERALS AND CHINESE ACROBATS
Three weeks from now, I will be working side by side with the people at the Undugu Society. I’ll probably be enjoying the easy access to Kenyan coffee and learning about the organization, goals, successes and challenges of Undugu.
As for now, I’m sitting in a café in Beijing, across the street from Peking University where I have been studying Chinese Law for the past three weeks. I think I am going to have an interesting transition as I leave the Orient for Africa. In spite of studying the history and economics of both continents, I am still a bit overwhelmed by their magnitude, culture, and many challenges.
I still don’t know quite what to expect in Africa. I was reminded of this just last week when I attended, of all things, A Chinese Acrobat show. No, it wasn’t the acrobats that made me think of Africa. It was actually the twenty or thirty African military leaders dressed in full military garb sitting in the front of the auditorium. They were an intimidating sight, which reminded me that my time in Kenya may be an equally intimidating experience. I chatted up a General from Nigeria who said they were there for a conference; official guests of the People’s Republic of China representing the militaries of all African nations. Wow! World Politics in Action. It was an interesting brush with some of the power in Africa.
Now, I need to meet the everyday people; specifically the street children and the good people who want to help them. They too may be intimidating at first, not because of uniforms or powerful positions, but because they’re a part of something that is still foreign to me. I’m looking forward to overcoming that foreignness, to being comfortable with the people I meet, and to fully understanding the issues they are facing.
I hope you’ll stick with me this summer by reading this blog. I hope that I’ll be able to shed some light on some of the issues that are being tackled in Kenya by the Undugu Society and The Advocacy Project. Most of all, I hope I’ll be able to show that in some way The Advocacy Project and I were able to assist Undugu and make life a bit easier for those living in poverty in Kenya.
Jonathan Homer is an Advocacy Project Peace Fellow working with the Undugu Society in Nairobi Kenya. Jonathan is a student at George Washington University Law School with an interest in international human rights law. Jonathan is a native of Idaho and a graduate of Utah State University where he studied history and international economics. While at Utah State University, Jonathan participated in an international service organization that focused on humanitarian work in Mexico and South America.
Jonathan also took a two year break from his undergraduate studies to perform service in the islands of Micronesia, which introduced him to the importance of humanitarian work and international law. Before beginning law school, Jonathan interned at the US Department of State's Bureau of African Affairs and worked for US Senator Mike Crapo on issues related to international affairs.
Jonathan is an AP Peace Fellow with the Undugu Society, a well-established organization that has been helping Kenyan street children for over 30 years. The Undugu Society is currently broadening its mission to include issues related to HIV/AIDS.
Undugu is partnering with HOPE/HIV – an organization dedicated to battling HIV/AIDS in Africa – to create a strategic plan for addressing the needs of street children affected by HIV/AIDS. Jonathan is assisting the Unudugu Society in this important endeavor.
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