When Victor "V'key" Ochieng Jumah was nine years old and living on the streets -- a "garbage eater," as they are dubbed in local slang -- he learned to mug and rob white foreigners, often scaring them first by smearing oil on his face and feces on his hands.
"Just seeing me like that, the women would scream and hand over whatever money they had," he said. He also developed an easy intimacy with bare ground for a bed, plastic bags for a toilet, discarded food scraps for meals, and a culture of aggression that included drugs, knives and, eventually, guns.
I didn't go to Kenya to interview street kids. I traveled there to finish researching an upcoming novel. But in the capital, I couldn't avoid seeing the homeless kids who roam Nairobi streets like watchful phantoms, feared as much as they are pitied and avoided more than they are helped.
Then Tony, a friend I'd known two decades ago on another continent, urged me to talk with V'key. "He'll tell you what it's really like," Tony promised.
There are so many tragedies in the world today that we may be tempted to avert our gaze from yet another one. After all, it's so far away, and don't we have to maintain a certain detachment just to get through our days? But as I sat across from V'key in the small cement room he now calls home, I couldn't shake the feeling that many of my day-to-day concerns about my own three children in Brooklyn seem, in a global sense, a luxury. And I was struck by a wild notion. In becoming a mother, maybe I joined a global community of moms. And maybe that membership comes with certain responsibilities.
Kenya's capital city is a popular destination for tourists who often head out on safari seeking snapshots of wild game. Nearly 1.7 million people visited the country last year, most passing through Nairobi. They were far more likely to head for the world-renowned Carnivore restaurant than dive into the valley of Kibera, east Africa's largest slum. But even if visitors sped by, it is impossible to ignore the stench of rotting garbage and excrement that wafts from Kibera's web of narrow, crammed passageways, dangerous for outsiders.
At least 60,000 homeless children live in Kibera and other Nairobi slums, said Anthony Lundi, coordinator of an independent organization established by the Kenyan government to try to help these children. The problem has worsened in the last five years, making Nairobi's street kid problem among the worst in east and central Africa, he said. Precise figures are hard to nail down, though, because "there is no place that the government has provided to receive these children, and no feeding centers," said Amina H. Ibrahim, a UNICEF project officer based in Nairobi.
Often traveling in bands, street kids hover in alleyways, their clothes ragged, their eyes glazed. Many become dependent on the glue they buy for a few cents and sniff to dull hunger pains and help them sleep. Without any other means of support, stealing becomes a crucial and well-honed life skill, earning Nairobi its nickname: Nai-robbery. While many boys turn to violence, girls often become prostitutes.
And it's not getting better, Ibrahim said. AIDS, more severe in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world, has left hundreds of thousands of orphans. Poverty, coupled with an unemployment rate of at least 50 percent, has also dismantled family structures. And the latest crisis, drought, has led to further collapse and brought more impoverished children onto Nairobi streets from isolated regions of the country.
"I'm back in the United States for a week or two and it starts to become distant," said Bill Smith of Brentwood, Tenn., a spokesman for Made In The Streets, an 11-year-old organization currently helping 40 Nairobi street kids age 13 and older. "But when I'm there (in Nairobi), it's just overwhelming. I'm on the street, sitting with these kids, and knowing this is where they are going to spend the night."
V'key, now 19, often uses the expression "cool" in response to a suggestion or comment, almost as if he were an American teenager from twenty years ago. But for years, things were not cool for V'key.
His story begins with routine beatings from his stepfather. Still just a wisp of a boy, he stole the equivalent of about 40 dollars from his mom and ran away, fueled by the vague goal of finding his birth father. One of the older boys befriended him, so he escaped the sexual abuse that youngsters are often subjected to on the street, and was immediately given a role in his gang's robberies.
"I would go out to the street to beg," he said, "and when I found someone to rob, I would run back to where the others were hiding and I would tell them. Then they would jump the white guy, and I would use my little fingers to pick his pocket."
Sleeping on the street was scary, not knowing how he would next eat was scary, and robbing became scary too after one gang member was caught and severely beaten by police. For a few weeks, V'key got a job gathering potatoes, but the small change he earned was not enough for him to even feed himself, so he returned to his old "job."
Over the span of a few years, he graduated from sniffing glue to smoking bhang, slang for marijuana, and then to injecting himself with drugs. "That's what gave me the courage to carry the AK57 when my gang went to rob banks and shops," he said.
This downward spiral is familiar to street kids. But V'key is one of the rare lucky ones. In 2003, as the Kenyan government started an effort to "rehabilitate" street kids, he found his way to a center and, through music, an outlet for what he'd experienced. He is now part of a rap band named Machizi, which means "crazy" in street slang, and has written and performed a number of songs about the harshness of street life.
Relatively lucky, too, is four-year-old Ann, recently found abandoned and asleep in the corner of a dingy bar in another Nairobi slum, Dagoretti, during the days that I was visiting. Many who live there survive by illegally brewing changaa, a potent maize-based liquor. Ann was scooped up by James Njoroge, the executive director for a home for boys called Dagoretti 4 Kids. Njoroge took her to Hekima Place, a boarding school for girls opened in August by Kate Fletcher, a retired widow from Pittsburgh, Pa., and now housing 25.
More than a hundred charitable agencies now exist in Nairobi to help street kids, including many funded by American individuals and groups. Organizers acknowledge the dent these programs make is small in comparison to the numbers of kids in need, but they say it is important to save the children one by one.
The United States also provides financial and military aid to Kenya, viewing the country as crucial to maintaining regional stability. But because of rampant corruption in Kenya, only a very small portion of those funds actually helps Nairobi's street kids.
Again, this may be where the global community of mothers comes in.
Think of it this way: it used to be common for all the mothers in a neighborhood to look after all the kids. The way we live has changed. Even if some of us are more isolated on a local level, at the same time we are definitely more linked globally than we ever were – in a myriad of ways, including through websites like this one. It could be that our "neighborhood" has expanded, and the perimeters of our shared mothering have changed too.
Those who work in Nairobi say the best way to help these kids is to find an organization that appeals and donate directly to it – a bit of money, a stack of books or crayons, an old computer. Grass roots, in other words. Moms sharing the work of looking after our children.
"I was so little when I was first on the street," V'key remembers. "At the time, I got used to it. But when I think back to it now, I feel a pain."
mmo : april 2006