Open Season on Nairobi's Street Kids
by Stacey Young
Give me one shilling!" Sebastian cried when I first met him, trotting along at my elbow and in a rare mood of restraint, Since then, he usually asks for 20, or sometimes 200, shillings.
"Give me one shilling, buy food."
Over the year I spent living in Nairobi, my response to 'street children evolved, as did my rudimentary grasp of Kiswahill. By the time Sebastian came along, I had begun to engage them in brief conversation.
"Habari yako? I ask. He doesn't expect this and looks directly at me for the first time. "Nzuri"
"Jina lako ni nani?" I ask him his name in my textbook Kiswahili that puzzles many of the locals. Not Sebastian. His face breaks into a- big grin and he exclaims triumphantly, "Sebastian Karanja:"
"Okay, Sebastian, today's your lucky day." I ponder the irony of that statement as I hand over a five.shilling piece. I don't feel terrific for having said it. Sebastian takes the coin and is gone.
For Sebastian, one of a growing number of children who live on Nairobi' s streets, the "City of the Sun" is a dangerous and foreboding place. Estimated to number between 30,000 and 150,000, these children-whose parents have died of AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, traffic accidents, or some other calamity os (more frequently) who are simply 'no longer able to care for them--are the targets of many cruelties, both brutal and casual. These range from letters to the editors of the local newspapers advocating their detention and punishment, to sexual abuse by strangers and older or stronger street dwellers, to police sweeps, in which the children are rounded up and sent to remand homes where overcrowding, underfeeding, and disease (such as scabies) are rampant. And although Kenya's Child Law Project is currently seeking to bring the country' s child,protection legislation (crafted in 1972) into line with the declarations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the project may be fighting a losing battle. Brutality toward street children is routine, particularly on the part of the police- the very public servants charged with enforcing the "child-protection" legislation.
In January 1994, for example, the police raided the Kariakor center for street boys, rounded them up, and made them lie motionless in the scorching sun for hours before taking them to the Kamukunji Police Station. The next day, in the compound of the juvenile court, they were made to sit in rows on the ground, where they were interrogated and systematically beaten. Police have also descended upon the children as they wash their clothes in the filthy Nairobi River, beating them and confiscating their clothes.
Street sweeps are also common. Just before the May 1994 meetings in Nairobi of the African Development Bank, the police conducted a sweep that netted more than 800 street children. The children were taken to two "camps" outside of Nairobi in Lorian and Kayole. Within weeks, the vast majority were back on the city's streets. In a sweep the previous month, police rounded up children along with sex workers, "idlers, gangsters, drug addicts, peddlers," and others defined as "undesirables" by Central Police Division Commanding Officer Gideon Muli.
More recently, government-sponsored violence against street kids has escalated. On August 11, 1994, a police reservist spotted a street boy, later identified as Simon (or Samuel) Kanampiu Kamande, stealing the side indicator off a car in Ngara, a Nairobi neighborhood. The reservist shot the boy five times, killing him, then kicked his body into a gutter and spat on it. This event became a national scandal, in part because Joseph Kamotho, minister of education and secretary of KANU (Kenya's ruling political party since independence in 1963), criticized initial press reports for "blowing the issue out of proportion, " asserting that "this is not a matter of national importance." Kenyans were left to wonder what could be a matter of national importance if not the killing of an unarmed person by a member of the police force? Soon they found out: the publicity brought to light the killing by the police of five unarmed street dwellers in the same area of the city in the previous month. Subsequent investigations indicated that there was more than one reservist involved in their deaths.
These events produced enough outrage among ordinary Kenyans to keep the August killing in the news while government officials engaged in what many consider to have been a series of delaying tactics. The police waited several weeks after Kamande's death to arrest the officer responsible and charge him with murder, even though his identity was well known. Instead, Police Commissioner Shedtach Kiruki announced an inquest into the matter, a move that many viewed as an attempt to protect the reservist-and the government's image-by waiting until the issue disappeared from public view and then letting it drop altogether. Ultimately, however, the continued pressure of public opinion prompted the eventual arrest of reservist Avinderjit Singh Chadha. Chadha is being held without bail, awaiting trial for murder.
In spite of these events, police repression of the children persists: the day before Kamande's funeral, which many street children said they planned to attend and for which several of Kamande's friends served as pallbearers, police conducted another sweep, locking the children they netted away until after the funeral.
The government's punitive attitude toward the children goes well beyond the brutalities committed by the police. Joshua Angatia, the minister of health, recently told Kenya's parliament: "It is not right to let our children go wild in the streets. They should be collected and put in centers where they are made to work hard?'
Walking through Westlands, the Nairobi neighborhood where I live, I've learned to spot, out of the comer of my eye, Sebastian coming my way. Sometimes we make a deal: he waits while I go buy him some food with protein in it, like meat pies from the bakery instead of the chips and soda he invariably asks for. He doesn't like this arrangement because the other boys can catch on to what he's doing. When I hand over the food-always with the futile admonition, "Share!"he has to run until they tire of chasing him and he can eat all of the food in peace.
One day, when Sebastian approached me, I told him to wait while I got food. He declined. A few days later I saw him and offered him some of the bread I was carrying. He hesitated before taking it and then said, "Give me money." Some, thing clicked in my mind. I recalled another day, maybe a month earlier, when I was waiting for a bus. When it pulled up, I saw Sebastian and some other street boys hanging from it. It slowed and they dropped casually onto the pavement not far from where I was standing. Sebastian's eyes were glassy, his face stretched into a wide, lazy grin. Sebastian has a drug problem; many of the street kids do. Their choice of drugs are glue and petrol, both inhaled. The children's addictionvastly complicates efforts by local organizations to assist them: the kids don't want to stay in the centers set up for them, where food is provided but drugs (although often available) are officially prohibited. Moreover, social workers find it extremely difficult-if not impossible-to counsel them effectively about their situations and their options while the children are high.
"You can't have a serious conversation when the kids are high and full of themselves," explains David Blumenkrantz, who has worked for the past two years with Undugu Society of Kenya, the country's largest and most well-known nongovernmental organization working with street kids. "They may stop in [at a rescue center] to eat and bathe, but you can't really reach them, and then they leave for the streets again. "
Street kids have problems other than drug abuse, and the hazards facing street girls make helping them particularly challenging. Many of the girls have been sexually abused-either in their homes (prompting their flight to the streets) or on the streets and in the chuoms (alleyway homes) which street kids establish in groups similar to family units.
"It is so difficult to get these girls to open up," says Consulata Muthoni, a social worker at Tunza Dada, a Nairobi-based project working with street girls. "They are not like the boys. A boy will come in and immediately tell you what he feels. A girl, you've got to establish a relationship. Sometimes I think it's the culture. . . . Boys are allowed to get angry; girls are just supposed to take what comes their way and be quiet."
What comes the girls' way is often horrific abuse. Girls who have been raped by their fathers or other male relatives are often told by these men that they will be killed if they tell anyone of the abuse. Sexual exploitation continues in the streets, too. Denied the economic opportunities available to boys living in the streets-parking cars, collecting scrap waste, and the like-girls are forced into prostitution, in return for both cash from strangers and the security provided by the male members of the chuoms.
"In the beginning, you just have to guess if a girl has been abused sexually. They won't say outright," explains Anke Reef, mann, a German social worker and an intern at Tunza Dada-"You have to build trust and ask the right questions-slowly, carefully, and indirectly." Discovering that a girl has been molested, of course, is only the beginning. And all too often girls go without the counseling and other support they need to deal with the deep scars of such abuse. The resources are simply overwhelmed by the need.
Many social workers who work with street kids say that people should not give money to the children because many of them use it to buy glue. After discerning that Sebastian was probably among these, I decided not to give him anything but food-no money and certainly not the shoes he'd asked for several times, which he could easily trade for glue or for money to buy glue. But then I saw him one Saturday heading in my direction at the elbow of another mzungu (white/foreigner). He pretended not to see me as he passed me but, sure enough, within 45 seconds I found him at my side, one small brown hand clasping an enormous danish he'd scored from the guy he'd been tailing when I first saw him, and the other hand tugging at my sleeve. He was back to ask for the shoes.
"Okay," I relent, "njoo." We cross the street and enter Uchumi, the grocery store, where we head for the bin of rubber thongs. Sebastian, who by this time has already wolfed down the danish, tugs insistently at the gum boots. "These, these," he says plaintively. "These are better."
"No, Sebastian," I say, glancing at the price tag. "Pesa mingi. Pesa mingi sana."
"Buy me these," he persists, returning to the boots after passing his hand distractedly through the bin of thongs. "Hapana," I reply firmly.
"Okay." He gives up on the boots and darts across the aisle to a row of small, brightly colored plastic toy tricycles. "Buy me this."
Oh, you poor baby.
Sebastian is a child. He can't be more than eight or nine years old, if that. Yet he and other children like him inhabit a world that has forced upon them a range of adult concerns under circumstances more desperate than most adults ever have to face-or should. It may be those concerns-for food, shoes, money, a warm, dry place during the raw rainy season of June and July, protection from those who would harm them-that, in the eyes of the police, seem to strip the children of their vulnerability and humanity. Or perhaps it is their seemingly endless needs, the desperation of their circumstances, that prompts the brutal treatment.
Whatever the cause of individual callousness, the plight of street children will not improve until basic social problems are addressed. Current "rehabilitation" efforts conducted by the 33 voluntary children' s organizations that operate in the Nairobi area simply cannot meet the needs of the tens of thousands of children living on the city' s streets. Assistance is particularly limited for girls, with most street children's programs geared toward boys (providing training in traditionally male trades, for example). This is partly due to the fact that Kenyan society values males over females in all aspects of life. But it is also due to the fact that the number of street girls has increased sharply only in the last decade, as economic opportunities for girls decrease even further and overall poverty is on the rise. Moreover, as Consulata Muthoni points out, boys who leave home to beg in the streets during the day return in the evening with full stomachs while their sisters who remain at home go hungry. The girls see this and decide that they, too, should take to the streets.
For street children of both sexes, organizations like Undugu Society and Tunza Dada can only do so much. Though their outreach, shelter, counseling, and training programs help some individual children substantially, their limited resources prevent them from making a real dent in the larger population of street kids. Moreover, the fact remains that most of the problems facing street kids go beyond those that can be addressed through such organizations.
Police violence, for example. "What is lacking is retraining for the police," David Blumenkrantz insists, recounting stories of chuoms being burned at night and of finding kids "with their heads all bashed up by the police. The police need training in child psychology, in dealing with these kids. They need to learn to treat them as human beings."
Muthoni sees the root of street kids' problems in Kenya's larger economic woes and the poverty that plagues more and more Kenyan families. " If all of Kenya's economic problems stabilize and things go back to normal, kids will stay home because things will be better," she says. Is there any hope of these needed changes taking place in time to help Sebastian, the girls she works with at Tunza Dada, or any of the other thousands of children who live on Nairobi's streets? Muthoni shakes her head. "For the time being, no. Change is always possible; you can't say that change is impossible because people can change if the will is there. But I don't see any real sign of it right now. "
Stacey Young Stacey Young is a freelance writer living in upstate New York. She worked in Kenya for a year as a consultant on development issues and HIV/AIDS. Her new book, Changing the Wor(l)d: Discourse, Politics, and the Feminist Movement, is forthcoming from Routledge.
Copyright 1995 by American Humanist Association. Text may not be copied without the express written permission of American Humanist Association.
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