A HELPING HAND

Project gives Meru street children new lease of life

It's a hard knock life for youngsters driven out of home by neglect and dysfunctional families. 'Learn from the streets' rehabilitates and mentors them to start over

In Summary

• Street children have little option but to beg for money and food 

• Faith Gikunda started an initiative to rally support for them and nurture their talents 

Some of the street children follow a narrative at Nteere Mbogori gardens in Meru, where they meet every Thursday
Some of the street children follow a narrative at Nteere Mbogori gardens in Meru, where they meet every Thursday
Image: Dennis Dibondo

Have you ever imagined living in the streets, begging for food from well-wishers and even spending the night out in the cold?

Well, that is part and parcel of the life of street children in Meru town, some as young as one year old after being born in the streets.

The kids, popularly referred as a ‘Commando', hang around supermarkets, nagging shoppers for some coins or food. Many want to get out of the streets, but they do not know how and where to start.

 

A group of youth noticed the hardships the street children were going through and decided to intervene. They started a project called 'Learn from the streets', where they interact with street children to find out their problems and seek ways to solve them.

Project manager Faith Gikunda said the project started in 2016, aiming to mentor and rehabilitate the street children. They meet every Thursday 2-5pm at Nteere Mbogori recreation centre gardens, where they teach and help discover talents among the street children. 

Those who are lucky are sponsored by a philanthropic Catholic priest, Father Francis Liwa, who has managed to educate a few of them.

Gikunda said the project is a way of giving back to the community and supporting the less privileged.

 
 

“Every time I met them on the street, they would be begging for money and food. So I formed an initiative with about six volunteers,” she said.

She said they realised that without mentoring such street children, they would not be able to change their perception of the society.

Learn from the Streets project manager Faith Gikunda (R) registers the street children
Learn from the Streets project manager Faith Gikunda (R) registers the street children
Image: Dennis Dibondo

DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES

 

Gikunda said they mostly engage in talent activities, such as creative arts, which is key as most are very talented.

"We engage them in sports as they have a soccer team called Commando FC, and in drama, as they have a dance group,” she said.

She said dealing with such street children is not easy. I sense this when I arrive do conduct an interview. After a few minutes, I flash out my camera to get good photos of the gathering of street children, some of whom are still sniffing glue from plastic bottles. Gikunda hesitated and told me to wait until she introduced me.

Douglas Mwaniki, a 17-year-old from Isiolo town,  cannot hear properly and sometimes nosebleeds. His family used to live in Kiwanjani ward in Isiolo town, which is about 40km from Meru town.

“When my father died, he left us with two of my siblings. My mother married another man and we were about six children, so it became unbearable. And my stepfather was very harsh on me, it’s like he wanted me to leave,” Mwaniki said.

He came to the streets in 2017. If he can get someone to sponsor him, he would like to do a mechanical course.

Mwaniki says sometimes he hawks traditional herbs as an alternative to begging to survive in the street.

Brian Kithinji, also from Isiolo, said his aspirations to join the military nosedived after he found himself in the streets.

On the other hand, Howard Koome from Muririiri, South Imenti constituency, was hoping to become a preacher until his father chased him away after he learnt he would be arrested for not taking him to school.

His mother went do casual work in Nairobi after he disagreed with his father, whom he described as a drunkard. He said his village is filled with illicit brews.

Patrick Muriuki from Nanyuki said he would want to leave the streets but does not know how to. He would like to work in a hotel or as a cleaner but is forced to carry goods for traders in Gakoromone market.

Artiste Wallace Mureithi mingles with some of the street boys he mentors at Nteere park in Meru
Artiste Wallace Mureithi mingles with some of the street boys he mentors at Nteere park in Meru
Image: Dennis Dibondo

DAILY STRUGGLES

Gikunda said they are forced to raise money and ask for old clothes from people to help some of the street children.

“They are human beings and they want to wear clothes and get medical attention. We are forced to negotiate with the Meru Teaching and Referral Hospital, and they have agreed to help and give them free treatment,” she said.

One of the street girls tells me gender-based violence is rampant, as young ones especially experience sexual abuse.

Gikunda said most street girls cannot afford sanitary towels or pads and are forced to use dirty clothing in their menstrual circles.

She urged the county and national government to chip in to help settle street children.

The good Samaritan said they chose the park as most street children are found there in the daytime, and some even sleep there.

She said they have been able to reunite some with their families and even managed to circumcise some of the boys.

“We have attached about 13 to garages, where they are doing training, while some have joined school,” she said.

Gikunda said it has, however, been hard for some to cope in the school environment, as they come back to the streets after school, forcing most to drop out.

“We have been talking to institutions that can be able to take them as borders so they can stick to school," she said.

Street children have a meal at the park
Street children have a meal at the park
Image: Dennis Dibondo

HOUSING PLANS

Christian Okoth, who is also a member of the ‘Learn from the streets’ project, said they have initiated a programme on business mentorship. The children are taught skills including jewel and bead making and attached to various business enterprises.

“We also have spiritual nourishment for small street children taking cobbler glue so they can stop the addiction,” she said.

Elizabeth Nyambura, a librarian at Meru Library, said she has been bonding with the street children.

“We want to understand their challenges, where their homes were, why they left and if they are ready to go back. Some told us their story and we took them home, while others say they do not want to go back,” she said.

Nyambura said they want to start a project of housing them at a place where they can afford and providing clothes and daily meals and taking some to school.

She organises to bring tablets for them so they can learn through e-readers programme.

The librarian urged people to assist them with clothes and books, which can be dropped at Meru Library to enable them run the project. It is not easy to sustain it as they are just volunteering to help without much finances.