Kenya: Children Hooked to Miraa
East African Standard (Nairobi)
15 September 2007
Posted to the web 15 September 2007
Eleven-year-old Joshua Mwithia wobbles and almost trips as he heaves under a heavy load on his back. This is his fifth trip to Mutuati shopping centre, one of the drop-off points of miraa (khat) in Meru North.
Nathan Karithi, a Standard Four pupil at Nkamathi primary school speaks on his cell phone which he bought using earnings from miraa.
Mwathi is tired and emaciated but he has to toil on because he has a family to feed. His 14-hour daily job involves harvesting and ferrying miraa from various farms.
Mwithia’s plight evokes strong sympathy. His emaciated frame and haggard look bespeak volumes about the high levels of child labour in Meru North District. Mwathi and thousands of other children are not only victims of child labour but are also hooked to the addictive herb.
Orphaned by HIV/Aids at a tender age, these children have been forced to fend for themselves and their surviving family members.
If the children are not employed to pluck, sort out into various grades, package or carry miraa to the markets, they are engaged in more tedious and labour intensive coffee, tea and horticultural farms.
The place of work depends on where one comes from. Those from Igembe District are mainly engaged in miraa farming and business while those from Tigania toil in coffee and tea farms.
Mwithia and his colleagues are part of the estimated 250 million child labourers, worldwide, deprived of education, good health and basic freedoms.
Amos Mwiti supervises other truants of Nkamathi Primary School to pluck miraa twigs for pay at the local village.
In Kenya, according to a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), close to two million children are working in hazardous conditions. They are deprived of a worthwhile childhood and access to quality education. Most of these children head households because their parents are dead or are too weak because of their HIV/Aids status. Poverty is also another reason these minors find themselves thrown into the harsh realities of the labour market.
Eastern Province is ranked third among the regions with highest number of child labourers.
It is hard for children to remain in school amid the lure of lucrative miraa business.
Peter Kobia M’Nkubitu, a pupil at Karama Antuamuo Primary School, is torn between staying in school and dropping out. He says ever since his three friends dropped out of school in 2004, they are now "successful businessmen". They have been trying to entice him off school with petty gifts but his strict parents have restrained him.
"My friends say I am wasting my time in school while I could be making money. They brag about the money they make and sometimes I envy their lifestyles," he says.
Girls become objects of pleasure for tycoons
Here, the plight of the girl child is even worse. With lots of money circulating at the local Maua town, young girls are easily enticed into early sex. This leads to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. The girls are prone to mistreatment and manipulation and often end up as objects of pleasure for "local tycoons". Some of them are forced to become house helps, lodging cleaners or bar attendants.
Authorities have been blamed for reluctance to institute strict regulations to ensure that vulnerable underage girls are kept off the town’s streets and bars.
Mr Ezekiel Omwanza, the District Children Officer, says many children are trapped in child labour for reasons beyond their control.
Besides the lure of money, they have been forced to take up breadwinning roles after the death of one or both parents.
Meru North has the highest number of orphans in Eastern Province. It has more than 20,000 orphans and majority of them have dropped from school .
The Children Act 2001 states: "Every child shall be protected from economic exploitation and any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development."
The Act, Omwanza says, has greatly helped in compelling locals to keep their children in school. He, however, regrets that truancy is the order of the day as many children often sneak out of school to go and work in farms.
Omwanza says keeping children off farms and streets is difficult because of extreme poverty.
Miraa pickers are locally known as Ntungi – the uneducated.
The Government official regrets majority of the affected children are aged between 11 and 16. The ones who find the going tough, he says, eventually graduate into street children.
Maua town has about 67 street children. The officer says the figure has reduced from more than 100 in January after his department and the provincial administration re-united some of them with their parents. Others were placed in approved schools through local courts orders.
Guidance and counselling helps street children reintegrate into the society. The very vulnerable orphans, he says, are usually taken to children’s homes while others have caregivers appointed for them through the cash transfer programme.
Under the programme, caretakers or guardians are given Sh1,000 every month to provide for food, clothing, education and medical care.
The programme has had major hiccups. School sponsors argue children drop out due to lack of fees and that some parents discourage their children from pursuing further education because of fees burden.
Omwanza says some children leave school to pick miraa and get fees stick on because they find the venture "very rewarding".
Mr Joshua Mithiaru Kiunga, a head teacher in Nkamathi, laments pupils sneak out to harvest miraa. He says this is the norm in 24 primary schools in Mutuati division.
Kiunga says most lower primary school pupils – especially boys – have no aspirations to continue with their education because they view it as a hindrance to venture into miraa business.
Introduction of free primary education has not helped the situation. Kiunga also regrets interventions by anti-child labour crusaders like ILO, Plan International, the provincial administration and some NGOs have hardly changed the scenario.
Before it pulled out of the district in 2005, Plan International had committed a substantial amount of money to education of orphans. The NGO used to pay school fees, buy school equipment, and provide health services and water.
In 2000, the organisation channelled over Sh3 million through the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) to curb child labour. The projects, however, collapsed at the formative stages.
The pilot projects were in five districts where child labour was considered rampant. The objective was to work towards a progressive elimination of the vice by strengthening national capacities to address the practice under the International Programme on the Elimination of Child labour (Ipec).
Meru North was one of the five districts that benefited. Others were Busia, Koibatek, Taita Taveta and Siaya.
ILO and Knut signed an 18-month technical cooperation agreement to eliminate child labour in miraa, fishing and sisal sectors.
The Sh13.5 million education project and training was being funded by the Norwegian Government through ILO/Ipec. When it was set up in Meru North, education stakeholders expected the problem would be wiped out. The initiative, which was initially to benefit 120 pupils from 14 schools, within Kiengu educational zone, could not survive wrangles between s
chool committees and other stakeholders.
The project involved identifying victims of child labour and encouraging them to go back to school. Income generating projects were to be put up for parents and guardians. In the first phase of the programme, 120 pupils were taken from miraa, coffee and tea farms and enrolled in different classes in 14 schools.
The income generating projects – which included planting of food crops and tree seedlings for sale – were supposed to be sustainable and assist destitute children start and complete education to their levels of ability. ILO had injected about Sh300,000 into the project. About Sh75,000 was released through the local Knut branch office to sponsor some students to tertiary colleges.
In that period, about 15 Standard Eight finalists were enrolled in Maua Youth Polytechnic for various courses. But the programme also died after the initial beneficiaries completed their courses.
The primary school programmes buckled over an acrimonious relationship between the school committee and the then Kaurine Primary School deputy head teacher.
The head teacher blames the school committee for the collapse of the project. The committee, she recalls, put the final nail on the project when it incited parents into unleashing cows into the school’s farm.
But the Executive Secretary of the committee, Mr George Thaimuta, blames the collapse on poor management and calls on ILO to consider reviving it.