Senior reflects on JanPlan in Nairobi rehabilitating children
You know the odor that attacks you as an overflowing garbage truck zooms past? Or the smell of humidity saturated with rotting food, garbage and body odor emanating from some New York City train stations? Well, multiply that by five and you can begin to enter the streets of Eastlands, Nairobi where I met street children surviving, not living, on the streets of one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. I journeyed to Kenya for the final January term of my college career in search of an opportunity to make an impact far away from home. I volunteered through World Relief and, at the tail end of my trip, worked with Tumaini Kwa Watoto, a U.K. registered non-profit organization working to rehabilitate willing street children from the streets of Nairobi and to empower both child and families. On this particular day, Maggie, Nelson and two others from the Tumaini crew escorted us to the streets of Eastlands, Nairobi.
The white van that deposited the Tumaini Kwa Watoto workers bumped along the congested Nairobi streets, looking for the marketplace where we would set out on foot. As we went further from the wealthier areas, closer to the city center and then even further to Eastlands, the heavy smell of petrol was not the only thing nestling into my nasal passages. Dirt, garbage, rotting organic matter and urine combined in the air to make a noxious concoction that would inhabit our noses far longer than we wished. As the van abruptly came to a stop right inside what looked to be an open abandoned market place and the door slid open, the odor intensified. Now that images were not sporadic through the car window, I was gazing at the sources of the smell. The dirt streets and road were lined with old plastic bags, tattered pieces of dingy cloth, rancid food and oddly colored murky puddles.
We followed the workers down a street filled with second-hand cars, and individuals looking to sell potatoes, charcoal, plastic shoes and mangos, each little stall aiming to make a profit along the side of the busy street. As I walked through the narrow streets, eyes watching me wherever I went, I hopped along, avoiding the puddles of questionable material making up the ground I stood on. We stopped as Maggie, one of the women guiding us, veered off the main path to stand before a large car tire. As I shifted my body to see what had engaged her attention, I realized she was talking to a little boy who looked to be about eight years old, comfortably seated on the tire. As she continued to speak with him, he led us down a narrow path between many shacks making up the homes of the people of Eastlands. I thought something was off with the interaction—it was the way the boy shook her hand, the way his eyes fixed on her.
When he brought us to the rest of the boys, I suddenly understood.
As he brought us into a large clearing between shacks, I noticed that he held a bottle of a thick, yellowish gel. He held it in his hand, like all the other boys in the clearing; thin dark fingers wrapped tightly around one of their few possessions. All of the boys we met that day were under the influence of a narcotic that made them forget that they were hungry, that they were cold, that they slept on the very streets I gingerly walked on.
As James, the first boy, introduced us to others, the group of glue holders grew. We shook hands left and right gazing into yellow tinted eyes and toothless smiles. Some boys were so far gone that saliva dribbled from their mouths as they tried to say their names. They held onto my hand far longer than is customary, curious about the lighter coloring, even tugging at the thin dark hairs on my arm. Asan, a 20-year old who last attended primary school, translated some stories for me, telling me how other boys got here, how they traveled many miles for another life, only to find themselves on the street with no desire to go back and no hope for a way out. Asan was as tall as I am with brown sugar skin and slightly lighter hair. With his yellow shirt, murky blue jeans, worn sandals and bright smile, he could have been any Kenyan boy, but the glue he concealed and the petrol stained rope he sniffed were keeping him from remembering why he might want to go home. Asan stayed by my side as I met the many boys that continued to join the scrum. When Mwengi started talking to me, the intensity of the sadness growing inside of me multiplied. Mwengi was beautiful, 15 years old, wearing a green hat and a worn backpack. His family had died, and he had come to Nairobi to find a new life. “Take me to school” he pleaded, “I want to go back.” The bowling ball of sadness dropped down into my stomach. What could I do?
For boys like Asan and Mwengi, the excited journey to the city had morphed into a dejected and dangerous descent into poverty. Asan explained that many wanted to go back to school but could not pay for education and had no support. As I walked away, back to the shaky white van, I kept thinking of all the things I could possibly do. All of the things I might give. But now as I sit in a college thousands of miles away, I have decided instead to simply share. Let me start at the beginning.