One of the last books that I read before leaving the United States was Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, (which has been extremely helpful as many Kenyans are eager to discuss the possibilities of the son of a fellow Kenyan leading the United States). In his book, Obama leaves the life of a traditional lawyer to become an activist working on behalf of the people living in inner city Chicago. His first boss in Chicago asked him what he was angry about. Apparently, according to his boss, he had to be angry about something to be motivated to advocate for the rights of the people living in the Chicago slums. I don’t think Obama directly answered the question and I’m not sure that I could answer the same question in such broad terms either. But, last Friday, I felt a little bit of what Obama’s boss was talking about; that anger that motivates us to try to fix a problem that is completely beyond us.
My anger on Friday was directed at something unusual. It was glue. More specifically, it was the glue being sniffed by a dozen boys that crowded around me with glazed eyes, slurred speech, and hands lazily outstretched for a handshake. These boys were stoned. Some of them stood in front of me hoping for a handshake without once removing the bottle of glue from their face. I was incredibly angry even though I didn’t know who exactly to be angry at. Was it the glue manufacturers, the adults who sell the glue to the kids, or the cops who don’t stop those sellers who should be blamed? Or, perhaps I should be mad at a government that doesn’t enforce its laws or any of the several factors that let a boy end up in a situation where his only way to stay warm while sleeping in an alley way on a chilly night is to sniff glue? I don’t know who I should be angry at. But, something has to be changed.
These boys are typical of the street children in the slums of Nairobi. Most of them are runaways. They left their families because they were hungry, embarrassed about something, or abused. Some have lost their parents and are too much of a burden on other family members. They sleep in alleyways and under bus stops. They rummage through garbage for recyclables and beg for money. They are also young. VERY YOUNG. Through the translation help of Charity, a Kenyatta University volunteer, I asked their ages. The most common answer: ten. Some may have been even younger. These are boys who should be playing games at recess and learning their multiplication tables. Instead, they’re living on the streets of a slum and spending most of their time in a delirious buzz.
The children need help and they want help. One boy with muddy bare feet and a shredded red sweater repeated several times in English, “I want to go to school.” He will have that opportunity if he sticks with Undugu. As we left the slum, another Kenyatta University volunteer, Aivan, stayed behind to interview the boys. He recorded their names, nicknames, ages, where they came from, and where they sleep. They are in the beginning phases of becoming an Undugu Youth Association, which is kind of like a reformed neighborhood “gang.” The youngest ones will automatically be rescued by Undugu and sent to its center outside of town for up to three months of detox, counseling, and social work to replace them with their families.
Those who remain in the slum will be organized by Undugu, with association leaders and group rules that include no glue or other illegal activities. Many of them will be enrolled in Undugu’s alternative school for children who can’t attend one of Kenya’s public schools for various reasons. The older ones can be enrolled in Undugu’s Informal Skills Technical Program where they learn to be electricians, carpenters, and other valued professionals. These boys will have a future because Undugu is channeling the anger in the right direction.
Posted By Jonathan Homer
Posted Jun 18th, 2007