The *Street Kids of Nairobi

If you walk in Nairobi CBD you’ll notice there are more street kids nowadays. Where did they all come from, you wonder. Are they being manufactured at a factory somewhere in Industrial Area? Or did they also move to the city like those thirsty skinny cows, in search of greener pastures?

Interestingly I only see them in uptown. Moi Avenue and above. Rarely in downtown. Or maybe I don’t go there enough times.

And I don’t want to.

At first they seem like a nuisance. The increased number has only exacerbated the situation. Now more dirty kids stop you. Interrupt your peaceful walks with pleas of handouts. They use words like “mras” to catch your attention. Or “msupa”. I don’t know which one is worse.

You try your best to ignore them, while walking faster than usual. Hope they’ll give up the faster you go. Once in awhile you might say hi to one who starts with pleasantries like a civilised person, before they ask you for something.

A young boy bugs you for a 10 shilling coin. “Kumi tu”, he says. You say that you don’t have, even though you remember you put one in your coin purse earlier that day. But you’re too afraid to give him.

Later on you wonder if you did the right thing. You console yourself by telling yourself he might use it to buy more glue like the bottle clutched in his hand. Or maybe he’s collecting money to give someone else at the end of the day, like a teller handing over cash to the boss.

You go on with your day living in your head. Thinking about yourself. Life revolves around you, right? You hope you won’t bump into another on the UON bridge. You don’t meet any. Relief. Until you’re seated in an open restaurant eating your chicken shawarma.

As you munch on, you spot a young teenage boy outside looking in. He’s probably hungry, wishing he could taste what you’re having. Or imagining being in your place someday. Able to eat at a normal Nairobi eatery. Or have a guardian who can afford to take him there.

The front of Nakumatt Lifestyle mall is riddled with lots of them. That’s when you realise - this is a real problem. As you negotiate the corner to Koinange Street you overhear a woman who speaks in a rather loud voice; it’s as if she wants the whole world to hear. “Hawa watoto wanaumia” -these children are suffering -she shouts to her friend. Mentions something about difficulty with getting medication and treatment for them.

And then it finally hits you. These children are not the problem, they’re the symptom. Of rapid unemployment, high cost of living, and poor social services exclusive to poor areas.

The kids are not here because of choice. They have nowhere else (safe) to go. No one to buy them fresh clothes. To get them new uniform before the term starts, and drive them to school in the morning. No one to buy them pizza on Terrific Tuesday after school. To cook for them dinner when they get home. Or even check their day’s homework.

There is no one to take them out to their favorite playground after church on Sunday. No new toys to beg for at the supermarket. Which they will probably get in the end after a lot of whining.

Instead, this is the life that has been handed to them. They are their own parents. The streets are their home. They have to take care of themselves. Find a safe corner to sleep on at night. Hunt for their own food. Search for their own green grass.

And so they depend on the middle class on the uptown streets for their generosity. For that soda bottle they just stepped out with from an international brand restaurant. Or a bag of leftover fries.

When they get it, they will probably share it with their equally hungry friends, before they find something new. And if everyone ignores them, they just have to look for it.

On Koinange Street there was a woman seated near the door of a restaurant. With a hand on her face, she watched a little girl nearby rummaging through a trashcan for something to fill her stomach. And in that moment I thought, maybe we can do more than just watch.

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