3 JULY 2003

Rehabilitating former street children

Wilberforce Mbei, a small 12-year-old, says he feels very comfortable living in Dandora, a rough estate on the outskirts of Nairobi's main rubbish dumping site. "I feel that this place is very good, I have found a home," he says. After five years of living with his aunt, who abused him, and two years on Nairobi's streets, he says he feels safe now. "I was denied all my rights before," he says, "even to play." Stopped from going to school and neglected at home, he sometimes had to go without food at his aunt's for as long as three days, he says.

Life on the streets seemed like an easier option, but Wilber was soon disappointed. "It was pathetic on the streets. I wasn't sleeping well, because I had no shelter, and there wasn't enough food, and too much bullying," he says. When Pastor Joseph Kamithi found him, Wilber was "heavily traumatised and destroyed," he says. He had been molested by the other street kids and was covered in scars from being beaten.

A new home
Kamithi brought him to his Dandora home for former street children, a 25 by 10 ft corrugated iron and timber dormitory, and taught him how to fit into a new family. It's not as nice as Kamithi would like it to be, just a semi-permanent structure on top of the Kenya Children's Fund Trust, but at least each boy has his own mattress there.

It was here that Wilber met his friend, Regan Owino. A painfully shy 12-year-old, who says he ran away from Kisumu when his father kicked out his mother and took in a second wife. "She beat me daily, she didn't feed me, she made me work all the time," he says. "She didn't love me even after I did my work perfectly." Her own children were well fed, he says, but he was kept well away from them. "I wasn't allowed to play with the other kids."

The products of broken and violent households, the children Kamithi tries to help are used to being mistreated by practically everyone physically, psychologically and often sexually abused, most people only speak to them to shoo them away in disgust. "They are used to it. Even their own relations neglected them, they think it's normal," says Kamithi.

Training for the schoolroom
Hardened from years of terror and scrounging to survive, many of them long to go to school and live "normal lives". But most don't know how to even begin. Their innate suspicion of others, aggression, lack of concentration and an inability to make friends means that Kamithi has to work hard with them before they can begin to join their peers in a classroom.

Each of his adoptees has needed up to 18 months of counselling to wean themselves off the drugs they rely on, and before they can be sent to school outside. "It takes me time, it's a matter of totally embracing the kid as my own, teaching him how to communicate without fear," says Kamithi.

"It's a matter of total rehabilitation through counselling, and guidance and love, because only when a child is loved, he feels he can be something."

Conflict always remains with them, he says, which means that living in close proximity to others is never easy. But despite this, he has managed to create this home in which 10 former street boys all aged between 12 and 20 live relatively peacefully together.

But some drop out
Originally there were 15, but five didn't want to stay, he says. With the dream of making up to 1,000 Kenya shillings (US $14) a day parking cars in prime areas, it was hard to convince them that school was a better option in the long term.

A further nine have been reunited with their families. Of the 10 who remain, he has successfully managed to convince all of them to pursue their education; two are still in primary school, four in secondary and four have jobs having done vocational training courses, two as hairdressers and two as mechanics and panel beaters.

It is an uphill struggle to keep the boys in line, as well as to find the money to pay for their upkeep and school fees, but they manage somehow, he says.

Insecurity a problem
Money is always tight, and Dandora a stronghold of the infamous Mungiki sect, which has engaged in spates of killings over the last few years has become increasingly dangerous. Many of the local street children who hang around the dump have guns now, Kamithi says.

Last year, he was mugged at gunpoint, choked and left for dead, and had his car battered by local thugs. Now, he says, he's too scared to work as a taxi driver at night in the area, as a means of bringing in extra cash for his family. They now survive on his meagre salary as a community worker with an NGO.

But however tight things get, they are never be as bad as they were on the streets. Just knowing they have someone to rely on makes life a lot easier to bear for the boys. "I am helped with whatever I lack, because now I have a father," says Regan.

Kamithi says what inspires him most to continue his struggle, is an innate belief in the potential of each child. "I used to visit the streets, and I felt a sympathy for the children," he says. "I knew life was very harsh for them, so I tried to talk to them and find out why they had left their homes. I just wanted to get them into school." It's hard to imagine a counsellor and friend with more experience of their problems. "I knew the areas that I lacked as a child and the challenges that I faced. I knew I could be a great help to them," he adds.

Kamithi himself is a former street child.

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