Kenya: Former Street Children Out to Change Life in the City Slums

Kenya: Former Street Children Out to Change Life in the City Slums
The Nation (Nairobi)

22 September 2007
Posted to the web 21 September 2007

Arno Kopecky
Nairobi

With the election season under way, Kenyans are daily subjected to an endless succession of photo ops, press conferences and sound bytes. With all the sound and fury, it’s easy to forget what any of these men are actually doing for the people they claim to represent.

Emmanuel Boys Centre founder Daniel Muiruri Nduati with Aids orphans Samuel Kamau, 9, and Kevin Kinyanjui, 14. Photos/ARNO KOPECKY

But a new generation of leaders is quietly emerging that is far removed from the wealthy dynasties now orbiting State House. Working below the radar and without the benefit of a public purse, the youths are all the more impressive for coming from the most disenfranchised corners of society. Unlike so many who make good and never look back, they have stayed on to help lift their communities from the hopelessness of poverty.

"I know how people struggle," says one of them, Mr Daniel Muiruri Nduati; "because I went down that road myself."

Mr Nduati, a soft-spoken 26-year-old, left an abusive home when he was 14 and entered life in the streets. "I started hustling," he remembers; "stealing when I could, doing odd jobs for a few days at a time. I was taking drugs everyday, whatever I could lay my hands on – brown sugar, marijuana, alcohol, glue – I went crazy for years."

Articulate founder

It’s difficult to equate this story with the articulate founder of Emmanuel Boyz Centre standing before me now. But it is precisely his experience of life in the streets that gave Mr Nduati the drive and compassion to start up Emmanuel in 2000. The youth centre has so far taken 300 children off the streets, providing them with shelter, food and a productive environment in which to focus on self-development rather than merely surviving.

At present, the centre houses 40 boys, including three brothers orphaned by Aids. They were all at school the afternoon I dropped in, leaving the gated compound quiet and serene. Mr Nduati explained the religious vision he had at 17 which shook him back to life. He returned home and completed high school with such distinction that he was offered a European scholarship. Although he never graduated from university, the international contacts he made soon led to the funding that enabled him to start up Emmanuel Boyz Centre.

"One of the benefits of having the centre at Dagoretti is that it’s too isolated for the children to sneak back to the streets," he says. "When they first come here, many can’t think of anything other than finding a way to get high. But once they’re here it’s just about impossible, and gradually they learn to focus on other things."

At length the gates open and a van comes through, disgorging an unruly but cheerful crowd of children. Most have been here for months now, some for years; in fact, some are just a few years younger than Mr Nduati.

"I used to run with some of these guys when I was in the streets, you know? I go back and look for old faces, buy them lunch, see how it’s going. If I find someone who really wants to make a change in his life, I’ll take him in. But of course, I can’t take them all – there are just so many new children on the street every year."

People who are too old for school are offered vocational training instead. We leave the boys in the yard and go visit one of them, Samuel, now employed as a carpenter at a nearby workshop.

"Daniel totally changed my life," Samuel, 22, says, stepping away from the bandsaw where he’s carving out a bed frame. "I would still be on the streets, or worse, if it wasn’t for him."

The success of Emmanuel Boyz Centre inspired another project nearby: Dagoretti 4 Kids, or D4K as the locals know it. Founded two years ago by four men in their early 20s, D4K provides shelter and various programmes for orphans and street children while at the same time working to find jobs for impoverished parents and single mothers.

"I used to know Daniel," says Mr Michael Mungai, one of D4K’s founders. "He was one of the people who kept telling us we could make it if we wanted to." Now 23 and studying on a scholarship at St Joseph’s University in the US, Michael recalls the days when he too lived in the streets, selling drugs and working in brothels.

Mr Mungai rehabilitated himself with help from the Pamoja Child Trust, where he met another young man named Peter Nduchu. The two teamed up with Mr Elijah Waweru and Mr James Njoroge and got D4K off the ground. They are now busy planting maize, cassava, beans and other crops on the one-hectare compound. When not busy on the farm, they are heavily involved in community outreach programmes.

"Drunkenness, prostitution, HIV/Aids – these are the major problems," says Mr Njoroge. "These are the reasons so many children keep showing up in the streets. If we don’t tackle the issue at the root, more will just keep coming." Much of their energy is spent finding the street children’s parents. When they do, D4K tries to engage them, ideally funnelling some of the money they receive from international donors into small business projects to help them to get back on their feet so they can take their children back. But he admits that day is some way off.

Their efforts have attracted the attention of such notables as Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, Al Gore, and Jeffrey Sachs. The high profile helps when it comes to fund-raising, says Mr Mungai.

At the other end of town is another inspiration – Carolina For Kibera – which is run by the energetic Mr Salim Mohammid. Carolina was started six years ago when Mr Mohammid was 25, and has grown into a four-tier community-based organisation affecting the lives of thousands of Kiberans.

One of its principle foundations is the Tabitha health clinic where the locals may go for free treatment and testing. "We have over 20,000 people in our data base," he tells me. "Can you imagine what these people would do without Tabitha? I don’t even want to. None of them could afford to go to the hospital."

He takes me for a walk through Kibera, spreading smiles and handshakes by the dozen as we go. In this neighbourhood, he is probably more popular than its MP, Mr Raila Odinga. But he laughs when I ask if he would ever consider running for politics. "Are you kidding?" he says; "they would eat me alive."

Mr Mohammid grew up at Mathare and was a professional footballer in his youth. He’s translated his passion into another of Carolina For Kibera’s outreach programmes. Thousands of Kibera children are now part of the football league he created, but before they can join a team, they must take part in the community clean-ups he organises each weekend.

The programme ties into Mr Mohammid’s "Trash for Cash" project, whereby young men and women are taught how to make a profit from recycling and collecting garbage before it reaches the sewer.

And the fourth aspect of Carolina for Kibera is the Binti Pamoja project, which allows young women to gather, study and talk about issues that affect them. Last year, the girls published a book of photography and personal narratives depicting life at Kibera from the perspective of adolescent women.

The project lured US senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama to drop in during a visit to Kenya in 2006.

At Dandora, children are learning to break-dance. Kangethe Ngigi, or MC Kah, is teaching them, his back-pack still on as he shows a half-dozen wide-eyed youths how to prolong a hand stand.

We are on the graffiti-covered compound tha
t serves as the headquarters for Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, the Kisima-award winning hip-hop collective that is a branch of MC Kah’s Maono project.

Kah is elusive about his age – "let’s just say I’m old," he laughs, though it’s clear he’s not past his mid-20s. His older brother, Kamau, is 29, a member of hip-hop group Kalamashaka. Together with friend Joshua Maina they founded Maono in 1999 as a way of "helping youths develop skills to become independent."

Maono, an acronym for Mikasi, Anzisha, Onyesha, Njia, Okoa, offers much more than just break-dance lessons. There is also a film and photography school, music and dance lessons and an acrobatics programme. And like his friend Mohammid in Kibera, Kah has harnessed a passion for football to keep children off the street.

Maono operates under a simple philosophy: Each one teach one. Every member of the group is responsible for passing his or her learning onto someone younger.

Emos Okulo, 21, is a long-time Maono team captain about to become a full-time assistant coach. "I remember when they found me," he says; "I was playing football with some friends using a ball made of plastic bags. The next thing I knew we were winning tournaments." He has become a passionate member, putting in 20 hours a week and more on a volunteer basis.

This year, Maono brought in two trophies – one for the under-13 group at the Mombasa youth tournament, and the other for under-12s at the Dandora youth tournament. The children get an additional push from knowing that two of them will be selected each year to represent Kenya at the Norway Cup.

Unlike its counterparts at Kibera and Dagoretti, however, Maono doesn’t get large donor funding and relies exclusively on the contributions of members and friendly people.

Much of the money earned through record sales from the hip-hop branch, Ukoo Flani, is channelled back into the group. Kah’s latest projects are a library and a recording studio.

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