It is estimated there are around 250,000-300,000 street children in Kenya, around half of them aged between eleven to fifteen years old. Alarmingly, children below the age of five constitute 7% of the known total. According to Nairobi-based charity Kenya Children of Hope, 63% of these homeless children have been on the streets on a part or full-time basis for up to five years. The figures have been rising alarmingly on the streets of Nairobi, Kenya's capital; 16,000 in 1989; 25,000 in 1993; 50,000 in 1998 and today around 60-70,000. Although the exact numbers are not known, they are swelled by the children of refugees who have fled ongoing violence in South Sudan and Somalia. Few chose to live on the streets, but for many it is the only option.
As one child explained, "I lost my parents three years ago and since then I have been living in the streets without shelter and assurance of having food every day. Nobody cares about me; whether I live or not. People don't want to look at me. I’m trash. I don't want to live in the streets, but I have nobody. My uncle beat me hard when I lived there, and so I ran. Living in the street is the only way to survive".
Many of these children end up on the streets after being orphaned, abandoned or are sent there by poor parents to either work or beg, and of course, cities like Nairobi are well known for their numbers of child prostitutes. Most are branded 'chokora' (scavengers) and elicit not just little sympathy, but physical abuse including by the police.
For example there was what can be described as a 'raid' on the street children of Eldoret, the fifth most populated urban area in the country after Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru and Ruiru. The police descended on the children, allegedly beating as they went, forcing them into the already surging Sosiani river that runs alongside the area where the children are forced to live, a dump known locally as the 'California Barracks'.
Six children died in that episode and, over the next two days, the corpses of five more children washed downstream. The youngest of them was just nine years old. Such are the number of street children in some of the towns that they have their own 'code' with the streets being divided up into age zones, with street children who stray outside their designated area at risk of physical punishment by older children.
Some have simply ended up there because of climate change with droughts having a devastating effect on family livelihoods, particularly for the most marginalised and vulnerable communities in rural Kenya who are dependent on subsistence farming. Many of these children can be seen with glue bottles grasped by their teeth keeping the fumes close, fumes which quell the pangs of hunger and seemingly keep the cold and emotional pain at bay. One street child also noted that when high on glue it gave him the courage to eat garbage. One rehabilitation group believes that between 52-90% of street children in Kenya are glue addicts. This all makes any attempt at rehabilitation even more difficult as, although many would not initially want to remain on the streets, any other lifestyle with its social constraints has become alien and unworkable.
Often when we think of African children and are asked to sponsor them we are presented with images of sad children looking longingly into a camera. These are not those children. These street children, rob, steal, beg and sell themselves just to get a high. But they're still children and need help just as much or their future is as bleak as their present. The video (below) provides some insight into the lives of street children in Kenya. Also below is a directory of projects and programs working in Kenya with these children who are looking for your support.