New approach to helping Kenya's street children

On almost any day, at almost any time, children dressed in rags with bottles filled with glue pressed to their faces stake out the major intersections of Kenya's capital. No one is sure how many children live on the streets of this city of three million, but they certainly number in the tens of thousands. Many have lost parents to HIV/Aids and other diseases. Some have been cast out of their homes. Many are runaways.

Kenya, like most African countries, depends on private groups to help these needy children. One group in Nairobi, the Undugu Society founded in 1973, cannot take in all of the children in need, so it is organising the children to help themselves, said John Mshindi, a social worker with the group. "We bring the children into groups of 25 to form an organisation," he said as one group of boys played soccer behind him. "They have leaders and develop rules and regulations to govern them." The groups identify the problems they face and help come up with solutions. The Undugu Society provides food and helps out, but insists that the children be sober to attend the meetings. Sniffing glue and smoking marijuana are often the only comforts street children know. On the poorest continent in the world, the children are the poorest of the poor, depending on begging, theft and prostitution to survive.

Street children describe a life of almost constant violence and fear. Stronger children regularly beat the others, police raid their hideouts and sexual abuse is rampant, the children say. "Life in the street was so hard, sometimes we sleep without eating, we sleep outside, we have no shelter," said Angela Onjiku (17) who lived on the streets and now attends secondary school with financial help from Undugu. "There is a lot of raping and drug abuse." In their Undugu groups, the street children identify other children in need of immediate rescue and those who want to go into rehabilitation are given the chance, Mshindi said. For the rest, Undugu, which means solidarity in Swahili, offers food, counseling and sports.

For those who want to get off the streets, the group takes in children between seven and 17 years old. They first go to a rehabilitation centre to help them stop using drugs and adjust to normal life. Then the children attend an accelerated primary school. Most will get some kind of vocational training, while others will be sponsored for secondary school. Undugu finances its operations through donations and the sale of curios, jewellery, furniture, stationary and other items made by the children in the vocational programmes. Onjiku, the teen who once lived on the streets, credits Undugu for helping her make the transition to the classroom and she has hope for the first time of attending university. "I'd like to be a journalist and show people the street kids," she said, wearing her school uniform. "Take them to the slums and show them how life is."

Chris Tomlinson
2 May 2006

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