The Promota Magazine
Street children: a time-bomb for Uganda and Kenya
As Uganda recently celebrated its 50th independence anniversary, it was not all splendour and glamour for children who have no place to call home. City streets are their safe havens, notwithstanding the harsh environment associated with street life and the crime associated with the environment.
Current statistics indicate an increasing number of children in the streets and although African governments are trying to contain the matter, more and more children are living in the streets. Uganda currently records between 10,000 and 30,000 street children across the country. The question remains – Why do we still have street children in this day and age?
In Uganda, commenting on the street boys in Kisenyi area, the area chair person, Juuko Mutebi, confirms that the number of street children is alarming and has caused a security threat. He appealed to the government to deal with NGOs giving handouts to these children, enticing many to remain on the streets.
In Kenya, the issue of street children is nothing new, particularly to city dwellers who rub shoulders with these less fortunate children on a daily basis. To an ordinary Kenyan living a normal life, a street child is a menace. Many shun them as they try to bed for money or food.
These children are often unkempt, in tattered clothes and very dirty. They are sons, daughters, sisters and even mothers who have relatives across the country. Some have come from homes while others were born and bred in the streets. Their daily life is characterized by begging and sniffing glue.
In downtown Nairobi, an area that has seen the proliferation of street ‘homes’ whose main inhabitants’ are children with no descent homes. Born and bred in the streets, some of these children have had to adjust to the harsh realities of living a not-so- descent lifestyle. Many want out, but a score of others would rather live on the streets for fear of a new life.
“I really want to leave street life and go to school but where do I start,” wonders Kinuthia, a 17-year-old boy. “Once in a while, I have seen some of my peers being taken away by some organizations who later help them, but why am I left out?” Kinuthia, is a school dropout. Together with his two siblings, the trio left their poverty-infested home in Nairobi’s Kibera slums in search of a ‘better’ life in the streets. He comes from a single parenting home. He tells us that his mother was a commercial sex worker in Kibera and her hard earned cash was not enough to cater for all of them. Kinuthia engages in activities that gives him money, albeit little.
“I load people’s luggage in carts and sometimes I push the carts to where the person instructs me.” When he is not loading luggage, he occasionally steals, an act he is not afraid of revealing. “I do pick-pocketing to unsuspecting pedestrians and motorists. I have to eat and feed my brother and sister, who live with me on the streets”.
Living on the streets is no easy task and street children have long devised a mechanism to help them cope. Most of them sniff glue and jet fuels, substances that help them forget the hardships of street life.
Fatuma Muthoni is 17 and six months pregnant. She clutches a dirty bottle full of glue and during our interview, shows us how she sniffs the substance. “I got addicted to glue when I realized I was pregnant,” she tells us, adding that most of her peers are addicted to it.
"It makes you forget you're hungry and also makes us warm during cold seasons.” Oblivious of her status, Muthoni does not care about the unborn baby and the consequences that the glue might have on the baby’s health.
“Here in the streets, we do not feed well. I sniff glue because it fills my empty stomach and also feeds my baby,” she admits out of sheer ignorance. Surprisingly, Muthoni has never been admitted to hospital for any ailments. With no health care, poor sanitation and no food, she puts her trust in God.
“See, I am healthy and yet I haven’t eaten for days. But God is my protection. People walk past us, they ignore our plea and yet we continue to survive,” he notes.
A bunch of boys sniffing glue at a nearby garage tell us that the substance gives them the courage to eat garbage. “If we were leading normal lives, we would not dare eat garbage but street life has taught us to be tough. Without glue, our lives in the streets would be meaningless.”
Medics say the fumes are highly addictive and the effect is immediate. It also carries a high risk of brain damage, respiratory infections and other diseases that will of course never be treated on the streets.
Rape cases among street children are on the rise. Most girls are raped by their male peers and they have to contend with the consequences of unwanted pregnancies and worse, sexually transmitted diseases or even HIV. These girls cannot seek proper medical care as they have no money or the means to approach health practitioners. What follows is a train of babies born on the streets and when they grow up, they nurture their own babies on the same streets.
The plight of street children has seen the attention and sympathy of Monica Kanini, a middle aged woman who set up a home in one of Nairobi’s estate, to cater for street children.
“I take care of about 200 children who were originally in the streets. I give them food, accommodation and some basic education,” she says. Monica Kanini relies on well wishers for funds to keep her home running. She admits that taking care of these children poses so many challenges.
“Most of these children come from broken homes and hence have no discipline,” she says adding that some run away to go back to the streets where they belong. Most refer to her as ‘mathee’, a slang word meaning mother. She is a glimmer of hope to many destitute children who would otherwise be leading hopeless lives on the streets. With her meagre budget, she urges the government and other donors to step in and lift the burden from her.
“I implore on parents to take seriously their parenting responsibilities. The Children Act clearly stipulates penalties for failing to undertake this responsibility," he says. He also encourages parents to take advantage of the government Free Primary Education program that ensures children from poor homes have access to education.
Tired of street life
Most of these children want a different life. Those interviewed by Africa News said they were tired of street life. “All we want is a different lifestyle. What we require is rehabilitation. Most of us would want to go to school like other children,” one states. Some have dreams to become doctors, teachers, pilots and architects.
“We need people to embrace us and not shun us. We too come from homes; we too have parents but we are too poor to lead normal lives,” pleads Atieno, one of the street children.