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June, 2018:

Kenya’s “Street Children”, between extreme poverty and desire for a new life

Vatican Insider, La Stampa
Luca Attanasio, Nairobi

In Nairobi, there are 150,000. 300,000 in the whole Country: a disturbing phenomenon. A conversation with the Combonian Father, Kizito, founder of the “Koinonia” Community, and some former street children

You can see them moving in very tight groups around the central areas of the capital begging for some spare change and then hide right around a corner to sniff glue or fuel for planes. Barely dressed, they meet late in the evening in the slums of Nairobi. They pay a scant ticket to enter improvised shacks adapted to cinemas and watch action films or something worse: not so much to exalt and emulate the acrobatic abilities of the actors, rather to secure at least a couple of hours indoors. These are the Street Children of Kenya, children who, forced by extreme poverty, domestic violence or simply hunger, throw themselves onto the streets and risk remaining there until adulthood. T he older ones are teenagers, the younger ones you can count their age on the fingers of one hand.

According to UNICEF there are 300,000, half of whom live in Nairobi. Kenya is making progress and can be considered one of the best African countries in terms of development. Its social phenomena, however, are still massive. In the capital stands Kebira, Africa’s largest slum: a million people, mostly children, stacked in tens of thousands of shacks of a few square meters. Without a sewage system worthy of the name, the population literally lives on stratified piles of rubbish that will never be removed. The streets in the rain turn into marshes while the fumes, sometimes nauseating, mix with smells of fried or boiled food, a commodity sold in mini-shops on the sides of alleys that intersect making an inextricable maze.

In Nairobi, there is Dandora, the largest landfill in East Africa. It is an incredibly large area, which has grown over the decades on top of piles of rubbish of all kinds and receives about 900 tons of solid waste per day. Over 4 thousand people “work” there: watched over by huge marabou that stand on the hills of rubbish, they separate and collect the garbage, and deliver it to the guardian. They get 15 schillings ($0.15) per kg. In the meantime, they inhale or come into contact with hazardous materials such as lead, mercury or cadmium.

“In Kenya – Father Kizito – (born Renato Sesana, in Africa since the 70’s he has chosen the name of one of the martyrs of Uganda), Combonian, journalist and founder of the Koinonia Community explains – there is a huge issue on childhood. From the beginning, our community has chosen to take care of children and young people and, among these, it has privileged the poorest among the poor. Street Children have their own code, they are very united with each other and, especially if they have been living on the street for years, they form a sort of identity of their own.

Koinonia took its first steps in Kenya in 1989. Since then, it has had two primary care centers, three residential centers, a medical dispensary and a physiotherapy service which, at the moment, cares for over two hundred street children, and runs a number of schools. To reach and secure street children, Koinonia operators -many of whom are former Street Children – adopt a direct approach by establishing a relationship with the children where they live, sometimes spending the night with them and, following a path made of daily life and closeness, they convince, without ever forcing them, the little ones to join the project. They then work to reconstruct contact with the families and local communities, and prepare for their return to school.

“Father Kizito continues: “We have established a real ceremony for the day on which the child, after having regularly met and prepared for at least four months with the workers who go out onto the street, enters the reception center. The child takes a nice shower, receives new clothes and burns the old ones, almost as if to mean with a gesture the end of his old life and the beginning of a new one. Throughout the 1990s we had a hard time finding an approach that really worked: the children were driven here by primary needs, they stayed a bit and left. Since we changed method and realized that we only had to show them understanding and closeness – so then it was they who chose to end forever that “lifestyle” – the percentage of those dropping the program has fallen drastically, almost close to zero.

After the “rehabilitation” phase, which can last for years, the child is helped to return to the family or, if this is not possible, to rebuild ties with relatives, friends and the community of origin, cut over the years, that can support them in their growth.

“At home, there was not enough food for everyone – Evans, a 20-year-old former Street Child who has now become a prominent rapper (art name: Humble Prince) says – Dad died when I was very young and mom worked until late. Nobody really cared about me and then, I ended up on the street, I was 5 years old. At night, the police came to beat us up and treat us like animals, during the day we wandered to gather some small coins. Then Jack arrived…”. Jack is a former street child who was hosted about fifteen years ago by Father Kizito, now in charge of the reception centers. He is very popular among children who welcome him climbing on his statuary body.

“The first few times they thought I was a policeman. Then I started to spend time with them every morning, I brought them food, sometimes I organized football matches, some evenings I stopped over at night. When the group to which Evans belonged understood that I was one of them, that I was interested in their lives, they spontaneously decided to come to the rescue center”.

“At the beginning, it seems like an adventure – Friederick, 24, also a rapper (Bigfred cheche) explains – you feel strong, sniffing drug continuously and spending the whole day from one place to another, waiting for someone to give you some leftovers, gathering wood for cooking and going to the slums to watch movies. Then you start to ask yourself: “What did I do wrong to end up like this? Everyone avoids you and mistreats you. With us were also mothers and even street grandmothers, people who have never lived in a house”.

It is Sunday at the Domus Mariae centre where Koinonia runs a reception centre and a secondary school. All come to the mass, celebrated by Father Kizito, even the little ones of Islamic faith: left unguarded, they choose to participate to dance and sing with others. In the Mater Nigritia chapel, crowded with about a hundred children, there is calm and joy. The image of a society reconciled starting right from the little ones.

Gli “Street Children” del Kenya, tra povertà estrema e desiderio di rinascita

Vatican Insider, La Stampa, Pubblicato il 25/06/2018
Luca Attanasio – Nairobi

Li vedi a gruppetti molto compatti muoversi nelle zone centrali della capitale per elemosinare qualche spicciolo e poi buttarsi in un angolo a stordirsi di colla o carburante per aerei. Vestiti di niente, si incontrano la sera tardi negli slum di Nairobi. Pagano un misero biglietto ed entrano in baracche improvvisate adattate a cinema a vedere film d’azione o qualcosa di peggio: non tanto per esaltarsi ed emulare le capacità acrobatiche degli attori, piuttosto per assicurarsi almeno un paio d’ore al chiuso. Sono gli Street Children del Kenya, bambini che, forzati da povertà estrema, violenza domestica o semplicemente fame, si gettano per strada e rischiano di rimanerci fino all’età adulta. I più grandi sono adolescenti, i più piccoli hanno età comprese nelle dita di una mano.

Secondo l’Unicef sono 300 mila, la metà dei quali, vive a Nairobi. Il Kenya sta facendo progressi e può essere considerato uno dei migliori Paesi africani in quanto a sviluppo. I suoi fenomeni sociali, però, assumono ancora dimensioni enormi. Nella capitale sorge Kebira, lo slum più esteso d’Africa: un milione di persone, in maggioranza bambini, accatastate in decine di migliaia di baracche di qualche metro quadro. Senza un sistema fognario degno di questo nome, la popolazione vive letteralmente su cumuli stratificati di immondizia che non verranno mai rimossi. Le strade sotto la pioggia si trasformano in pantani mentre le esalazioni, a tratti nauseabonde, si mischiano a odori di cibo fritto o bollito, merce venduta nei mini-shop ai lati delle viuzze che si intersecano formando un dedalo inestricabile.

Ancora a Nairobi, si trova Dandora, la discarica più grande dell’Africa orientale. È un’area incredibilmente estesa, cresciuta nei decenni sopra a mucchi di immondizia di ogni tipo che riceve circa 900 tonnellate di rifiuti solidi al giorno. Ci “lavorano” oltre 4 mila persone: vigilate da enormi marabù che stazionano sopra le collinette di robaccia e che di tanto in tanto spiccano il volo per cibarsi di resti alimentari o non biodegradabili, separano l’immondizia, la raccolgono per genere, e la consegnano al guardiano. Ne ricavano 15 scellini (0,15 dollari) al kg. Nel frattempo inalano o entrano in contatto con materiali pericolosi come piombo, mercurio o cadmio.

«In Kenya – spiega padre Kizito (al secolo Renato Sesana, in Africa dagli anni ’70 ha scelto il nome di uno dei martiri dell’Uganda), comboniano, giornalista e fondatore della Comunità Koinonia – c’è un enorme questione infanzia. La nostra comunità ha scelto fin dagli inizi di occuparsi dei bambini e dei giovani e, tra questi, ha privilegiato i più poveri tra i poveri. Gli Street Children hanno un loro codice, sono tra loro molto uniti e, specie se vivono per strada da anni, si formano una sorta di propria identità».

Koinonia ha mosso i primi passi in Kenya nel 1989. Da allora ha attivi due centri di prima accoglienza, tre centri residenziali, un dispensario medico e un servizio di fisioterapia che, al momento, si occupano di oltre duecento bambini di strada, e gestisce alcune scuole. Per raggiungere e mettere al sicuro i bambini di strada, adotta un approccio diretto: gli operatori – molti dei quali sono ex Street Children – vanno a istaurare un rapporto con i bambini lì dove vivono, a volte dormono con loro e, attraverso un percorso fatto di quotidianità e vicinanza, convincono, senza mai forzarli, i piccoli a entrare nel progetto. Poi lavorano per ricostruire il contatto con le famiglie e le comunità locali, e predispongono il rientro a scuola.

«Abbiamo stabilito una vera e propria cerimonia – riprende padre Kizito – per il giorno in cui il bambino, dopo essere stato incontrato regolarmente e preparato per almeno quattro mesi dagli operatori che vanno in strada, entra nel centro di prima accoglienza. Il piccolo fa una bella doccia, riceve nuovi vestiti e brucia quelli vecchi, quasi a significare con un gesto la fine della vecchia vita e l’inizio di un’altra. Per tutti gli anni ’90 abbiamo fatto molto fatica a trovare una strada efficace: i bambini venivano da noi spinti da esigenze primarie, restavano un po’ e se ne andavano. Da quando abbiamo cambiato metodo e capito che dovevamo solo mostrargli comprensione e vicinanza perché poi fossero loro a scegliere di chiudere per sempre con la strada, la percentuale di quelli che si perdono è scesa drasticamente, quasi vicina allo zero».

Dopo la fase della “riabilitazione”, che può durare anni, il bambino viene aiutato al rientro in famiglia o, se non è possibile, alla ricostruzione di legami con parenti, amici e la comunità di origine, recisi negli anni, che possano sostenerlo nella crescita.

«A casa non c’era cibo per tutti – racconta Evans, un ventenne ex Street Child ora divenuto un affermato rapper (nome d’arte Humble Prince) – Papà è morto che ero molto piccolo e mamma lavorava fino a tardi. Nessuno si curava realmente di me e allora, a soli 5 anni, sono finito per strada. Di notte la polizia veniva a picchiarci e a trattarci come fossimo animali, di giorno vagavamo per raggranellare qualche spicciolo. Poi è arrivato Jack…”. Jack è un ex bambino di strada ospitato una quindicina di anni fa da padre Kizito, ora divenuto responsabile dei centri di accoglienza. È molto popolare tra i bambini che lo accolgono arrampicandosi su ogni parte del suo fisico imponente.

«Le prime volte pensavano che fossi un poliziotto. Poi ho cominciato a passare ogni mattina, gli portavo qualcosa da mangiare, a volte organizzavo partite di calcio, qualche sera mi fermavo a dormire con loro. Quando il gruppo di cui faceva parte Evans ha capito che ero uno di loro, che mi interessava la loro vita, hanno deciso spontaneamente di venire tutti al rescue center».

«All’inizio sembra un’avventura – spiega Friederick, 24 anni, anche lui rapper (Bigfred cheche) – ti senti forte, sniffi droga di continuo e passi l’intera giornata da un posto all’altro per farti dare gli avanzi, radunare legna per cucinare e infilarti negli slum a vedere film. Poi cominci a chiederti: “Cosa ho fatto di male per finire così?”, tutti ti scansano, ti trattano male. Con noi c’erano anche mamme e addirittura nonne di strada, gente che non ha mai vissuto in una casa».

È domenica al centro Domus Mariae dove Koinonia gestisce un centro di accoglienza e una scuola secondaria. Alla messa, celebrata da padre Kizito, vengono tutti, anche i piccoli di fede islamica: lasciati liberi, scelgono di partecipare per ballare e cantare con gli altri. Nella cappella Mater Nigritia, gremita di un centinaio di ragazzi, c’è compostezza e allegria. L’immagine di una società riconciliata a partire dai piccoli.

Una piccola storia di grande stupidità – A little story of great stupidity

Friday evening we accompanied to Nairobi airport two girls and three boys, all of them minors fully rehabilitated after years of living on the streets. Freshia, a thirty years old Koinonia’s social worker, travels with them, and they are headed to Wroclaw, Poland, where they were invited to the Brave Kids festival, a three-week meeting that is repeated annually with the participation of artistic groups of children from every European country. Ours is the only African group, due to the cost of the tickets. We were lucky that an association of Leszno saw our group last and decided to support us this year. It is the first time that our acrobatic team travels without me, and it is also the first time that we send two girls abroad. But we feel confident, because I saw in person last year how the Polish friends work, with enormous effort, to break down prejudices and cultural barriers and foster integration. Naturally the Polish embassy beore granting the visas required in impressive documentation – including the consent of the closest living family member and that of the school principal of each child, all certified by the Kenyan foreign ministry – of which Freshia has a copy in her handbag.

They leave at 4 am on the 16th, they arrive in Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, but when it comes to embarking for Berlin Tegel airport they get stuck, because, say the Turkish officilas, their visa is for Poland, not for Germany. Freshia explains that they have a Schengen visa issued after the Polish Embassy in Nairobi has seen their documentation and that Germany and Poland are in the Schengen area, and that last year another group of us had arrived in Berlin Tegel, where they had been received by Polish friends who had taken them to Wroclaw by car because Berlin is closer to Wroclaw than to Warsaw. No way. The officials of the immigration and the airline are adamant. “We have a treaty with the Germans that African refugees can not transit from Turkey“. “But we are not refugees, we have a visa”. “Yes, but there are new provisions”. Fortunately there is Whatsapp, Freshia calls Polish friends, they call me in a few minutes they se up Whatsapp group. We try to understand what are the imaginary new provisions.. We ask Freshia to let us talk with the officials. They refuse. The Polish friends contact the Berlin Tegel immigration and within half an hour receive an official response in an email, with the name and identification number of the official who signed, confirming that being both countries in the Schengen area our children can proceed immediately and will have no problems at arrival in Tegel.

Turkish officials also refuse to read the email. They refuse to talk to Tegel. They mention the new provisions that the Germans say do no exists, and the Turkish say the only solution is for the children to embark on a direct flight to Warsaw, but they have to purchase a new Istanbul-Warsaw ticket. The price is slightly lower than the return Nairobi Berlin. Freshia is tense, she tells me that she feels considered inferior, incapable to understand, less then a minor. She adds that the children are quite and have laid down to sleep among lines of departing passengers, wrapped in blankets made available by some airpot staff with a kind heart. Meanwhile, all negotiations are rejected. The Polish friends eventually decide to pay the cost of the new ticket, reserving the right to ask for a refund.

As I write, on the afternoon of Sunday 17, our dangerous Masai warriors – you see them in the impromptu show for the girls of Anita’s Home two hours before departure – should be flying to Warsaw. We had chosen together that they would start the show with a traditional Masai dance before an half an hour of acrobatics. In the right hand they should have the traditional Masai spear, but we decided they would buy some broomsticks in Wroclaw. But maybe someone has read their bad intentions in their eyes …

A tragedy? No, for heaven’s sake. Just an example of how arrogant little officials can display all their stupidity and ignorance. A symptom of how the racist messages continuously launched by Europe are received. This morning I was commenting with a Kenyan journalist Aquarius saga, and he told me “The message is always the same, and getting worse, and I feel it on me every time I have to go to Europe for work: Africans are not welcome, they are dangerous savages, probably sub-human “.

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