Time is flying to say the least. I have now been in Thika, north of Nairobi, for 4 days, shooting with Action for Children in Conflict (AfCiC). The charity concentrates its efforts on helping the street children in the area, the majority of which come from Kiandutu slum on the edge of town. Kiandutu suffers from extreme poverty, high crime rates, dense population and very limited options for the people that live there.
AfCiC are trying to help the children on the streets of Thika in a number of different ways. They have social workers working with families and local schools, a team of lawyers to support both children and adults alike, a micro finance scheme to help people develop businesses and support themselves and their families, a feeding programme in many of the schools to ensure the children get a decent meal and remain in school, and a training scheme that helps to get young adults into work. For the younger boys, AfCiC also operate an interim care centre that gets children off the street and into a stable environment where they learn life skills, get away from abuse on the streets, and are fed and clothed.
I spent most of the weekend shooting at the centre with the latest batch of street boys, all of which are nearly at the end their time at the centre and are heading to schools in the Thika area. Although not yet out of the woods, these boys are in much better shape than when they first left the streets and AfCiC have a fantastic success rate – over 80% of the boys that pass through the centre stay off the streets. The centre is basic and, because of an unscrupulous landlord, currently without electricity, but there is a sense that the centre is a good place to be. Like any group of young boys, there are fights and dramas but they are soon forgotten. The boys at the centre are children once again, rather than ‘street’ children, and spend most of their time raiding mangoes from the local trees rather than simply surviving.
Over the last few days, I have also seen some of realities of life on the streets for the children. On Saturday morning, AfCiC runs an outreach centre for children, where they can come and watch a movie, wash their clothes and generally get away from life and relax. The majority of children that attend the centre are not ‘hard’ street kids – they have a home to go to at night. However, a few of the ‘hard’ street boys turned up high on glue, the most common form of substance abuse amongst the children. These boys came to wash their clothes and have a bit of fun with the foreign photographer in their midst, and despite their situation, were very friendly and welcoming.
This morning we took things one step further and visited one of the ‘dens’ where the street boys are based. These are controlled by criminal gangs that use and abuse the boys, providing them with a ‘home’ and perhaps a sense of solidarity, of family, in return. Entrance to the den meant negotiating with and paying off one of the ‘base commanders’, helped by one of the AfCiC staff who himself grew up on the streets and was once one of the commanders.
When we visited only the older boys were present, most of whom were involved in preparing drugs for sale. All were very amicable and open, and very happy to show off their home. There was no sense of aggression and menace but after 15 minutes, the commander made it very clear that it was time to leave. An impossibly short time to get any sense of how the boys live their lives, but at least an opportunity to witness how most of the boys of the centre had been living.
We also travelled out of Thika to visit Wilson, a young boy that AfCiC has been helping for some time. Wilson grew up in a farming village with his father, in extremely basic conditions. With his brother, he left home several years ago and lived on the streets of Thika, most probably to escape life with his father. AfCiC managed to get him off the streets and into the centre but have struggled with Wilson as he suffers from emotional and behavioural problems, a result of watching his brother being beaten to death on the streets. He is unable to read and write, but at least he is now back in school and back with his father for now, whilst AfCiC search for a boarding school willing to take him on and help him with his difficulties.
Children like Wilson exemplify the challenges that AfCiC are facing. The children are NOT on the streets through choice, nor are they snorting glue for fun. They are abandoned because of extreme poverty, they run from abuse or simply no longer have a family. And they use glue to forget the realities of life on the streets, and their past.