FIRST PUBLISHED ON SATURDAY NATION, OCTOBER 11, 2014.
By ELIZABETH MERAB
Dark clouds hang ominously for Samuel Osir at Lang’ata Police Station, Nairobi.
Passers-by are warmly dressed but not Osir. He is in a Barcelona Football Club jersey and a pair of trousers as he picks discarded clothes from a garbage dump and puts them aside.
Osir settles on a torn brown shirt, a worn-out black skirt and a soiled blue pair of trousers. Soon, he has a pile, which he stuffs in polythene bag as it starts to drizzle.
The clothes, he says, are meant for a group of street children he is rehabilitating at Madaraka Estate near Strathmore University.
This and many other odd jobs have been a source of livelihood for 27-year-old Osir since he left Kwa Ng’ethe Rehabilitation Centre many years ago.
For him, the desire to be part of change among fellow street children makes him go out of his way to assume these duties and more.
“I always want to be the change people can emulate. These boys and girls have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Therefore, whatever little I get from the police station, I take it to them,” says the former street child.
In 2005, the government, in a sting operation, flushed street families from the streets of Nairobi and hauled them into rehabilitation centres.
The programme was started by retired President Mwai Kibaki’s Narc regime to rehabilitate street children and absorb them into the National Youth Service.
But this was not to be, for a year later the project ran out of funds and the families returned to the streets.
Today, they are all over the city centre and estates. Some beg, others do casual jobs at bus stops and markets, while others survive off the proceeds of crime — mugging, vandalism, pick-pocketing, theft and robbery.
SHAME OF BEGGING
However, for the 22 boys in Madaraka, begging for a Sh10 coin is a shame they do not want to subject themselves to.
They live in plastic-paper shanties erected against the wall of the estate. They are lucky that nobody has evicted them from the backyard of the apartments.
Most do not know their parents or siblings, but their bond is so strong that they have nurtured a family known as Madaraka Farmers Self-help Group.
The group squats on a rectangular plot, where they cultivate food crops.
“Boiling sukuma wiki (collard greens) from our garden for a meal gives us gratification. We don’t need to be begging on the streets,” says Philip Baraza, a father of five.
In their seclusion, they have set rules which each abides by. One of the rules is to stay away from drugs.
“We live by these rules and if anyone breaks them, we throw them out,” says Peter Muchega, the group’s chairman, adding:
“We came here to seclude ourselves from reckless groups. We don’t want drugs or to be called thieves because our homes have no roofs.”
Every Sunday, the group holds a must-attend meeting, where each contributes Sh50 to their ‘sacco’. The money is banked through a friend at a local financial institution.
“We have learnt to depend on ourselves for everything. No one is ready to assist a street child because they are always suspicious of us, but our friend has helped us all through for the last four years,” said Muchega alias Konje.
“I had no one to turn to after my parents passed on. The streets became my home and I found peace there,” he says.
For, Muchega it was a complete change — from a life of drug abuse and crime — when he was introduced to the group.
During our short visit to their turf, it was evident that the group has not only changed the perception of many, but also created a life far from begging.
Though Martha Katonge says she is 21, she looks much younger. “I joined the street life when I dropped out of school many years ago.”
She says that bad company led her to the streets. However, when she talks about her life at home, tears roll down her chin.
“My mother was not capable of taking care of us (she is the first born in a family of two) and at some point we had to drop out of school,” Katonge said.
With a gradual introduction to street life, she thought it was an easier way of forgetting the misery at home. “What do you do if there is no food at home?” she posed.
FEND FOR HIS FAMILY
Like Baraza alias Osama explains, the constant cat-and-mouse games between the county askaris and street families, drove many of them from the city centre. Most sought refuge in other places, one being the Madaraka shanties.
Baraza, 37, says since he joined the Madaraka group, he has been able to fend for his family which he houses and caters for in Kibera slums.
“I was tired of being chased and sleeping in the county cells. I even quit drugs just to join this group and I don’t regret it,” he says.
The county government of Nairobi recently announced an operation that will see almost 1,000 street families pushed out of the central business district into a rehabilitation centre.
Unlike the 2005 project, Christopher Khaemba, the County Executive for Education, says there are stringent measures put in place to ensure that the programme succeeds.
The county government has bought 40 acres in Ruai and is in the process of setting up the rehabilitation centre.
“We are aware that the previous operation did not succeed but this time, it must,” he said, adding that: “No group will be spared because even those who look harmless will sooner or later grow into crime.”
For Osir, the impending crackdown reminds him of the clouds that left him in the cold at Lang’ata Police Station.
His prayer is that the county government spares their skin and shanties for another day, month and year.