Alixa Sharkey

Alexi Sharkey (Undergo Society of Kenya - USK): Alexi graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2007 with degrees in Political Science and French. She then spent a year in Yenta, Shandong Province, China, teaching Global Issues and English language courses. Alixa has also undertaken projects with immigrant youths in Lexington, Kentucky and interned for the Conceal General du Calvados in France. At the time of her fellowship Alexi was a graduate student at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego with a focus in International Politics. After her fellowship, Alexi wrote: “One day I was really grumpy during one of the training sessions, when one of the students came in and you could just tell he was so happy. So I asked him, 'Elias, you seem really happy, why are you so happy?' And he replied, 'because I am here and I am learning to bog.' And then I couldn't help but be happy as well...For now all I will say, with confidence, is that I am a much more patient person.”

John, Joseph, and Patrick

29 Jul

On Saturday, with the help of a translator, I interviewed three potential participants for Digital Storytelling. The participants we have so far are between the ages of 17 and 23, so we are trying to find a few younger people. When John, Joseph, and Patrick walked into the office I thought I was looking at two 8 year olds and a 10 year old. But they turned out to be 12, 15, and 16 respectively. None of them speak English, and only one is literate, so Morris, an Undugu volunteer, helped me talk with them.

The Undugu model tries to put younger people into schools; for this reason I’ve had little interaction with people under the age of 17 through Undugu and DSP, except with babies and toddlers. John, Joseph, and Patrick belong to a Street Association called “Young Brothers.” There are 12 members between the ages of 12 and 16. None of them go to school, and to raise money they collect plastic and scrap metal, a very common activity among the young people I’ve met.

Here is Joseph, the eldest of the bunch at 16 (sorry, not a great photo)

Here is Patrick, the eldest of the bunch at 16 (sorry, not a great photo)

We started talking about some of the problems the Young Brothers face and I was a little surprised when the first thing they mentioned was “getting food.” Hunger is a concern for most vulnerable children and youth in the slums where eating three full meals a day is often considered a luxury. However, I had never heard hunger mentioned as the first major issue a group has to deal with, which indicated to me that hunger is a much bigger problem for this group. The second problem they mentioned was housing. All 12 had been sharing a room together, but they were not able to afford the rent and where kicked out. Where do they sleep? Wherever they can.

John, although the youngest, was the most vocal and the other two would occasionally chime in with their own remarks. Many in their group do not have shoes, which makes walking through the slums and rummaging through the garbage dangerous considering there is broken glass everywhere. While sorting through the trash they are often pierced by used hypodermic needles. They are worried about germs, but don’t know what to do about it.

John (12) and Joseph (15)

John (12) and Joseph (15)

Despite these hazards, they fill big bags full of resalable plastic and scrap metal. The problem is once their bags are full, older boys will come along, beat them up, and take their bags. Joseph, who is very small for his age, talked about being forced into the bag he uses to collect scraps and then being beaten with glass bottles. Collecting and selling plastic and metal is the only option available to them to make money legally, which is why they continue to do so despite the risks that come along with it.

Two kids sorting through a dump site in Kibera.

Two kids sorting through a dump site in Kibera.

You might be wondering where the police are, and why they are not stopping these boys from being beaten. Actually, when the police find them and the boys happen to have a bit of money because they have just sold a big bag of recyclables, the police “assume” the money was attained through illegal means, beat the kids, and take their money. The police beat the kids and take their money.

One final problem. Drinking water. They can’t afford it. So, they pick up whatever half-empty bottles they find lying around and drink from them. They don’t know where the water comes from; they don’t know if the water is safe to drink. But they are thirsty and they need water, so they drink it.

John, Joseph, and Patrick were shy. They didn’t make eye contact while telling me their stories. But when I asked to take their picture, they started making goofy faces for the camera. When I left them alone for a while, from the other end of the room I watched them joking around and laughing. They are no different than young people you would meet at a US middle school or high school…except they are perpetually hungry and in constant danger in their environment or from the people they should be able to trust, other members of their community and the police.

Posted By Alixa Sharkey

Posted Jul 29th, 2009


  • Annie

    July 29, 2009


    Wow, thanks for sharing. Hard to beleive such basic issues are truly at the forefront. Makes me think of that book “Scavengers” that I was obsessed with last year. Should give it to you when we get home, talks a lot about the potential for formalizing the trash picker sector as a means of providing protection from the police and safer working conditions. Columbia is leading the way in this movement. Thank you for sharing with us!

  • Kristina Rosinsky

    July 29, 2009


    This is so exciting that you are trying to get some younger youth involved. I can’t wait to hear about the issues from their perspective–especially the 12 year old. I bet hearing about the issues from such a young voice will increase the impact dramatically.

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