The street urchins of Kitale

Street children in Kitale linger around the streets at strategic spots, begging for alms from passersby. Some of them sniff glue, oblivious or not caring about the risks it poses to their health. To get a morsel for their stomachs they forage through rubbish bins and dumpsites, yet another risk to their health. But what other option do they have?

Nyosh*, 13, has been on the streets for three years now. He ran away from his home in Tongareni — where he lived with a single mother — to escape the poverty there. He recalls how his family would often go hungry because the money his mother earned from washing clothes was not enough to sustain him and his brother, who also ran away from home.

Nyosh admits that life on the streets is not as rosy as he’d expected. Despite sleeping on cold pavements and begging for coins from strangers, he says he would never return home.

Since living on the streets, the teenager says he’s been arrested thrice: once for theft and twice for trespassing. He maintains that he doesn’t always intend to steal but is driven to it by necessity.

The chokoraas, as the street children are known in slang, commonly sniff glue. Nyosh is no different. He says sniffing glue is not harmful to his health as it enables him to keep warm and drives away his hunger pangs.

Rasto* is another chokoraa. Like Nyosh he says he ran away from home because of poverty. On his forehead is a huge scar. The scar, he says, he got when he was knocked down by a car while running away from a guard who was chasing after him for trespassing.

Others like Paul*, 19, are on the streets to escape the law. Paul, who is a fugitive, hails from Bungoma County. He ran away from home because he was accused of having defiled a minor. Despite running away, Paul maintains he is innocent. To earn a living he admits to having stolen and peddled bangi (marijuana) before he was arrested. Now he collects plastics and scrap metal that he sells to dealers. He says that once in a while he goes to visit his mother at home but has never revealed to her where he is or that he is a street urchin.

The streets are dangerous for children. Esther Wasige, Trans Nzoia County Children’s Department officer, says the children are often exposed to physical and sexual assault, especially the girls.

“No action can be taken against the offenders as the assault victims (street children) cannot report to the authorities because they are afraid of being arrested,” she said.

Wasige pointed out that the number of street children in Kitale was estimated at over 600, according to a survey done in April 2012. The number is expected to have risen.

The upsurge in the number of street children in Kitale has been attributed to the hardships in neighbouring pastoralist counties such as Pokot and Turkana, which are often faced with drought and famine, and the longstanding issue of squatters in the county.

Wasige said that a lasting solution to the problem of street children is yet to be reached since there is no rescue centre or a child protection centre in the county.

She implored the county government, through the County Executive Member for Gender and Social Services Eunice Chelimo Ndiwa, to develop structures to curb the problem.

Ndiwa admitted that when she took up office in August of this year the budget had already been drawn up, thus excluding funding for projects to rehabilitate street children.

The county executive members have, however, approved a supplementary Sh. 35 million ($405,000) for the budget. But at the time of writing this article these funds were not available because the county assembly was paralysed over salary demands.

“The only lasting solution to clear the streets of urchins and street families is to develop a child rescue centre, said Ndiwa. “Plans are in the pipeline following the identification of a three-acre piece of land at Bahati Children’s Home.”

“The children are exposed to physical and sexual assault on the streets and they are driven to crime, such as petty theft, drug trafficking, trespassing and property damage to get money and food,” said Ndiwa. “So to prevent incidences of crime from increasing these children have to be taken to homes.”

In the meantime, her office was engaging orphanages like Challenge Farm and Seeds of Hope, which have agreed to take in some of the children for a rehabilitation program, she added.

However, due to lack of proper supervision the children often escape from the homes and end up back on the streets. To deal with escapees, the executive has passed a policy to have disciplinary action taken against those found to have escaped from a rehabilitation centre.

The county has plans to rehabilitate and enroll those like Paul, who are past the school going age, in polytechnics where they can acquire specialised skills like masonry, carpentry and plumbing that will see them off the streets.

Ndiwa commended nongovernmental organizations like Handicap International and World Vision for their support and partnership with the children’s department by sensitizing wananchi (citizens) to stop child abuse.

*Not their real names.

Image: a street child in Mombasa, Kenya. wikimedia.

Allan Mungai is a Communications and Media Technology student at Maseno University, Kenya. He aspires to be a print journalist. Follow his blog, iammungai.wordpress.com, or find him on twitter:@iammungai

 

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