Junior was 18 years old when he passed away in the streets of Nairobi in early February 2019. He had been living on and off the streets of Westlands for the last twelve years, having dropped out of school twice, first when he was 7 years old and barely into standard 2. He had joined up with a group of other street boys with similar dispensation to eke out a living on the plush street of Westlands where revelers would part with generous amounts of money or leftovers of sophisticated foods. Junior became addicted to the street life and did not see a reason to go back to school, after all he was making as much as the housegirls in Westlands. But one thing that Junior did not contend with was that he would grow up and lose his childhood charm that made people part with money so easily. The older he grew, the scarcer the money became leading to frustration and possible foray into petty crime.
At 15, Junior got his second shot at formal schooling when he met sponsors eager to get him back to mainstream schooling. He did not last a month, mainly because at 15, his Literacy and Numeracy skills were too rudimentary and he was put in a class with much younger and sharper students than him. He dropped out of school.
The final attempt to help Junior was to get him into rehabilitation. The urge to change was there, but Junior lacked the resilience and staying power to see him through whatever he got involved in, a common trait among street people. It came as no surprise when Junior and four other street boys walked out of rehab after only a week, citing rigidity in rules and hard work. But two teenagers stayed back and went through the six month course, graduating with some basic vocational skills and a renewed vigour in life, thus making Junior regret his decision to stay out of rehab.
As Junior hurtled dangerously towards full time crime, a script well followed by those before him, one wonders what would have made Junior and his street family prefer the unpredictable streets to a structured system. Firstly, there is freedom of movement and a fairly loose code of conduct in the streets: you sleep when and where you want, eat at your convenience (when you get food). Secondly, there is the monetary side where, like businessmen, money comes in daily. During club days, especially on Fridays and Saturdays, the stakes are high and on average, a street boy/girl can make as much as ksh.1000 per night. Thirdly, there is the comradeship where they hang around each other waiting for the next phase of their lives to kick in.
Below the veneer of a dirty street person, is a well calculated and thriving drug/alcohol business where the street people are used as mules to transport the drugs/alcohol from one point to another at a ridiculous low fee of about ksh.50 per trip giving a blind eye to the risks. Worse is the peddlers selling the drugs to the street people on credit to permanently keep them hooked and in debt, leading to a vicious cycle of petty thieving to sustain the habit. It becomes harder to break out of this rut.
We have a big problem on our hands.
Junior was one of the 250 000 street youth in Kenyan and 60 000 in Nairobi. Whereas street boys and girls have always been part of the society, though mainly around slums, the explosion of street families in Kenya happened from 1992 as a result of highly politicized land clashes starting off initially in Rift Valley province. From then on, every election year saw the number of street children and families increasing exponentially to reach a dizzy and maddening 600 000 Internally Displaced Persons in 2007 Post Election Violence.
As the number of street families spiral out of control, and a central and county governments look the other way, as a society we can do more. Much more.
The begging question emerges of whether religious organisations can play a larger role than the one offs that leave the street families hungering for more. For example, Westlands / Parklands region is home to almost 20 religious centres, none of which have a structured program for street families. Against a background of almost 500 street families, each religious centre has the capacity to take in 25 street families and turn around their lives.
Last year, a volunteer from India had a chance to share with the street families how he had teamed up with a few lawyers to compel the Indian government to allow public schools to be used as feeding centres in the evenings. He also talked of how, after work, people have volunteered their time to teach street children. Kenya can borrow a leaf. Public schools can introduce evening classes/vocational training for street children. This can also double up as feeding centres where those willing to donate food/clothing can do so. Many companies have a Make A Difference Day (MADD) where their employees engage in mentorship programs for the underprivileged. This can, and has, been extended to include private, local, and international schools to partner/adopt many of the slum schools. They can initiate feeding programs that will enable many of the slum students to stay in school and keep off the streets.
Finally, for those like Junior who found themselves in a no man’s zone, a well structured vocational skills imparting from middle level colleges, garages, bakeries, etc. can also chip in.
It is a herculean task but one which when embarked on with vision, commitment, and resilience will see the number of street families decreasing rather than skyrocketing.
We have to start somewhere.
Maybe, just maybe, with more pro-activity, Junior’s life would have been prolonged.