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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.

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