NAIROBI — Children and teens living on the streets of Nairobi lead dismal lives. They are targets of harassment from the police, city council and society at large. Many of them do drugs. Girls, especially, are forced to engage in survival sex for food and protection; and they all lack the education or skills training to make a better future. One group is trying to help these young people by organizing them into “street associations.”
Living on the streets
Most of Kenya's street children are fleeing from homes rife with poverty and violence. Kids run away from home for a myriad of reasons. And they take to the streets, which they see as a route to a better life.
An organization called the Undugu Society of Kenya
, helps these youth with education, business and skills training. It also sets up “associations” in which field officers mobilize children into groups of roughly 10 to 25 members. Undugu facilitates discussions about how to quit street life and provides leadership training.
Pete Kent is the East Africa Regional director of Railway Children
, a British-based organization that works with local partners like Undugu to help street children. He admits the association model has not always been successful. But he says the gains outweigh the losses.
“For example, in some of the areas where the associations have been set up, the crime rates have reduced significantly. For the individuals themselves, when it has been successful, they have transformed from a life of extreme, sort of chaotic existence, to a situation where youth may have secured somewhere to stay, two or three of them might be sharing the rent of the room and they have some sustainable income.”
Impoverished children, fending for self
The difficulties that Kent mentions are well-known to the children themselves.
Twenty-two year-old Brian Leteiba has been living on the streets of Nairobi since he was seven. For income, he collects food scraps from trash dumps to sell as pig feed. He is also the secretary of his association. “The circumstances that we are in, sleeping outside, the harassment there, the fights, everything, and it’s very difficult if you live outside," he explained.
Girls face additional difficulties. They often engage in “survival sex,” trading sex for food or personal protection.
Asha Adal has been living on the streets since she was ten. She now has a baby. She says many street girls are having survival sex.
Many other times, they are forced to do it against their will.
“Because if you live in the streets, they come and rape you. Someone. And, you can’t tell nobody because no one cares about it,” said Adal.
Associations, empowering youth
One primary purpose of the associations is for the leaders to inform Undugu when new, younger children arrive on the streets. The younger children may be sent to a safety center or even reunited with their families.
Robert Muchiri is 22, and has been on the streets since he was 16. He says he used to sniff glue and paint thinner to help him deal with the daily hardships of street life. He now has a small business selling clothes. As the leader of his association, he helps identify new street children to Undugu.
“We have tried our best, but not for long. Because we have taken some of them to Kitengela [child safety center]. Others we have taken them back here to their homes," Muchiri stated. "But the ones which we have not managed to take them there, they are still here with us.”
Numbers are difficult to determine, and vary widely depending upon the source and the definition of street children. However, Railway Children cautiously estimates that in Nairobi, there are up to 5,000 children and teens living on the streets.