Desperation comes to us all in different ways and waves, but some things are too much for the heart to bear or the mind to suppress. When I look back on my time in Kenya with Because ALL Children Matter, many moments – the best and the toughest come to me. But it is the heart-wrenching ones, the gut-twisting ones that will stay with me forever, like an emblem of that time.
I will never forget the moment when me and Deanne (CEO) received news from Johnson (The Vice Chair) that two children who were seen breast-feeding from a dog in Mutuini, an area located not too far from us. An individual had contacted the NGO to notify us that they had just witnessed two young children (approximately 5 and 7), undoubtedly homeless, breast feeding from a dog on the streets due to malnourishment. Arrangements were made – to keep a careful lookout for these children, as their location could not be determined (many street children end up getting ‘lost’ as they often move around a lot). Apart from that there was not much we could do until they were found. Deanne burst into tears, I was numb with shock – feeling powerless. I knew, if they were found that day, Deanne would take them in personally if she could, and I hoped for that so much.
Sometimes you have to try to forget the tragedy and focus on what you can do. A few days later after receiving no further news on those children, we went to visit a group of children that live on the streets of Nairobi, as a part of our street child food distribution project. We met with 26 of them, all looking ghostly because of severe hunger and some of them worse because of glue-sniffing.
Despite this they were so enthusiastic in getting to know who we were. So they inquired. The younger ones were very curious about where we were from, how old we were, and if we were married. A young boy called Ben (16) being waggish rather than flirtatious asked if there were lots of women like us where we lived. It was so endearing, it made me think…he was just a typical teenager, a boy really, trying to follow some idea of ‘normality’, yet here he was living on the streets with no shelter, no food, ripped clothing…and no mother.
We took the boys out for food, to a restaurant that had kindly agreed to let all of the boys in. They ate a big beef dinner…and with full stomachs now, came bright eyes and wide smiles. We got talking to them, got to know their stories. Sam (17) told me he really wanted to go back to school. He was very bright, but weary from persistent struggle. He seemed kind-hearted – someone the other boys looked up to. We took their details (name, age, the last time they were at school, how long they had been on the streets for, their known closest relatives, and their most recent academic grades if known).
We then gave them our business card with our number on and asked them to find a way of contacting us if they wanted to go back to school. Kenya doesn’t really have what we would call ‘emergency homeless hostels’, where people can have a warm bed for a night or two, or even just a wash. This makes it quite difficult to locate children, so it is practical to give them the NGOs details, and they usually find a way to get in touch, if they really want to. Unfortunately, some children and adults often don’t want to leave the streets because it’s the only life they know.
The next day we received a call from a woman saying her friend Ben wanted to speak to us about going back to school. Deanne spoke to him, he asked her to help him get off the streets and into school. Deanne would make this go completely right, she organised to meet with him as soon as we could. Soon after, me, Johnson, Deanne and Esther (Board Member) met with Ben. He lead us through an underbelly of Nairobi, the streets he called his ‘home’. I saw disabled people begging on pavements, one young man had a severe disability (no arms, blind and no mobility). He was swinging what remained of his limbs, jerking his body as if continuously trying to get up. There was a dirty empty plastic pot underneath his shaking body. It was cruelly heart-breaking to say the least. All I could do to remain resolute in the face of such depravity, as we weaved through the crowds, was to focus on following Ben to his friend’s work (the woman that had called us), because we were going to help him, this was the mission now.
These memories will never leave me and will forever shape the way I think about poverty.
Kenya is one of the most impoverished societies in Africa, with less than 0.1% of the population owning more wealth than the bottom 99.9%. I didn’t need statistics to tell me this. When out working on various projects, one minute we would be driving through the most pristine Hollywood-like village, and the next moment we would wend and weave across some of the poorest, deprived slums in Kenya. It was starkly contrasting to put it mildly. It’s baffling to conceive of, that most of the wealth in the world is owned by the ‘1%’, and in Kenya, it sent me reeling.
Despite the adversity many children and families face in Kenya every day, most of the children that I met, and the ones we managed to help, cherish and value life most profoundly. They yearn in earnest for the opportunity to learn, and they absolutely LOVE sharing their stories and teaching us about their lives and culture. Ben, who I find it difficult to talk about without welling up, is a young boy, formerly living on the streets, so full of life- with dreams, dreams that I believe he will one day realise. He is now at school, top of his maths class and one of his main goals is to help other street children when he grows up! Although the tough memories will always stick with me as a red flag of extreme poverty, I have to focus on the good stories, like the one where Ben quickly parts from a plight none of us could have imagined as a child – to live in a safe environment where he is free to fulfil his dreams, his life. There are many more good stories like this. Because ALL Children Matter has so far gotten 6 children off the streets, into shelters and schools through the sponsorship program. 10 children, who have a guardian or parent, but cannot afford school fees are also in school through this sponsorship program.
I am so grateful to be a part of this organisation. Despite the difficulties in the face of a pandemic, Because ALL Children Matter strives on each day to help those most vulnerable. Thankfully the authorities have given permission to carry on with the street food distributions, in certain areas of Nairobi, so at least these children and families can be reached and supported.