By Martin Adam
A government estimated 350,000 children have been left abandoned on Kenya’s war ravaged streets. Conflict between tribes, escalated by recent elections has despoiled any concept of the family unit, leaving the republic’s youth to turn to solvent abuse as a form of chemical counselling.
Bottles containing a slightly runny, honey hued substance are passed from young mothers into the hands of eager youngsters. Much like the syrup settling at the bottom there is little sweet in this scene. The mother is addicted to glue and transferring the neural depleting toxin into the possession of a toddler.
Philippa Frankl of Street Kids International informs me that “within our target group worldwide, cases of children abusing psychoactive substances are around the 90 percent mark. In Kenya these statistics would be likely to be very similar.”
Ethnic grouping is the sole factor in defining a person’s identity in the East African region. Passion runs so high that there is great division between Kenya’s tribal factions. Amidst allegations of corrupt presidential elections in 2007, Mwai Kibaki was placed back into office and violent clashes between The Luo and Kikuyu tribes swiftly erupted. Infants have looked on in terror and what one would imagine bewilderment as vicious strikes of blood tainted machetes strike their parents.
Nyankvir de Mabior of Edinburgh and former resident of Nairobi for 13 years insists that most children choose solvents as a way of “numbing their existence” with many taking to glue “as young as 10 years old”. Nyankvir adding that with the recent bloodshed following elections “little hope these children held has instantly gone.”
She detailed a common sight from the streets of the nation’s capital to me. “Use of glue is done openly in public. Groups of around 6 to 8 children will purchase the glue from hawkers then crowd in busy streets and take it”. Pedlars of the chemicals are typically adults who in turn gain a commission as they poison what is the country’s future.
Kibera stands out as one of Africa’s largest slums second only to Soweto. Located in the centre of Nairobi it is home to perhaps 1 million. It is typical of this area for a male to aspire towards dealing drugs with young women falling into prostitution. Life is of such poor quality that such a grim outlook is a widely accepted goal. In a bid to survive people are inevitably lured into an inescapable circle of crime leading on to drug abuse, ill health and eventually death.
Children still with family are sent out on to the streets in order to beg for money or food. Whilst on charity work Nyankvir met 17 year old Kamau.
“His parents had died from drug abuse whilst in their 30’s. Kamua takes care of four kids. The need for money is so great that sadly he has to use them for begging.”
For many missing mature guidance the sole purpose of begging is to provide glue money. Members of the general public have been encouraged to only provide food when possible.
Unfortunately, as Philippa told me, “government assistance is limited and sporadic. Help given to the problem is mostly down to non-governmental organisations and individual efforts.”
Street children are looked down upon by fellow Kenyans as a lower form of life, demonised by the higher classes. Nyankvir stated that “people try to avoid the street children on sight”. Some orphans claim to be forced into sacks then harshly kicked and beaten with solid objects. These are not attacks perpetrated by fringe groups but by police officers. Those who are meant to help, specifically target children of the slums and deliver regular abuse.
A wooden seat in front of a blackboard is preferred by all over lying in a bed of cast away filth, your brain smothered and grinding into shut down. High levels of crime coupled with second class health care result in low levels of school attendance. Little money which is possessed is increasingly spent on purchasing the glue, therefore thousands with a desire to learn cannot afford the necessary uniform. Without regulation attire the institution will refuse admission to the child.
Aumi Aumi is illicit alcohol made with the industrial chemical methylated spirit. It is now common for children to produce it by themselves using makeshift equipment. At the end of the process the dangerously potent drink is shared amongst groups. Possible side effects of consuming such a powerful concoction can be impotence, blindness and a slow death. Alarmingly those knocking it back are fully aware of the peril. Adolescents are embracing slow suicide.
Persistent charity work will reward with success stories. Hussein, 19, a former periodic street based child and solvent user gained practical skills assisted by Street Kids International’s “Street Business” course.
“Through this he learnt how to run a small business going on to establish his own selling second hand clothes. He now employs his cousin to run that business while he has started a new venture selling shoes”.
Hussein stands as one of hopefully now many industrious young people thankful after receiving such a deserved and overdue break into mainstream society.
Nyankvir mentioned that “national pride is strong and the youth of Kenya hold a sense of it. Now it is being threatened”. Despite such hardships there is a great sense of this amongst the communities of Kenya’s disaffected youngsters. To the side of drug abuses are the foundations of a solid social network powered by brave individuals. Food is resourcefully scavenged, cooked under flame and shared amongst friends. Rivalry between adult counterparts is overlooked. Bonds are formed regardless of tribal allegiance.
As Philippa summarised “it is an extensive and by all accounts growing problem with no apparent end. “A large scale problem met on a small scale level”.
Perseverance is essential. With heightened awareness of this growing problem and greater funding to back local projects such as “ExStreet” plus more support to valuable international charities like Street Kids International, life could eventually hold a fresh awakening and progress for neglected young Kenyans.