DESPERATE TIMES

How Covid-19 is changing the lives of street children

Life just got harder for them due to reduced human traffic, but some cartels use them to sell drugs

In Summary

• Street children are baffled by the virus, wondering whether to wear masks donated to them or inhale glue as usual

• However, they have felt the impact of the pandemic, from lack of leftovers to police harassment after curfew

"Uncle, nibuyie chai... Aunty, nisaidie 10 bob nikunywe chai." These are familiar words to every Nairobian crisscrossing the city.

The voices of small boys and girls, perhaps between four and six years old, while holding tight onto the hands of their targets, paints a clear picture of how the CBD is a struggle for survival for these children.

In groups, they have set up their bases from down Muthurwa market up to University Way roundabout. Their main hope being someone will offer them some money for the day.

 
 

At the Tom Mboya monument, I meet one of the urchins by the name Erick, better known as Stano by his friends.

Stano greets me politely and asks if he can have a word with me. As I battle spirits within me on whether to stop or proceed, he pleads that he won’t take much of my time.

“My brother, I am sorry but please hear me out. I just want you to buy me and my two small sisters something to eat. It has been two days now and we have not put something in our mouth. Our parents died and we had no option but to come to beg on these streets,” Stano started his narration.

I pulled him aside and keenly listened to his narration.

Stano said the streets are so tough and begging is not an easy task. On normal days before coronavirus, it was a bit easier for them to scavenge and get food to eat. But currently, the pandemic has made the already hostile streets unbearable.

 

“There are no hotels or eateries to give us leftovers. No hawkers are selling food in town, so my brother things are really tough for us,” he said.

As we enter into a deep conversation, Stano is joined by his friend Jonte, who seems more fun and at least sober.

 
 

Jonte in his narration said the current pandemic has forced them out of the town. They have been forced to go beg for food in the estates as many people are trying what they can to avoid business in town.

He said most of the days, they will stay out of town, except Tuesdays and Fridays, when several NGOs and charitable organisations serve them food.

“We have a group that serves food at Uhuru Park, another at Jevanjee, Globe Roundabout and Parklands area. So one has to choose the nearest point to get a share of the donation,” Jonte said.

“But the truth is that this thing called corona has affected us. We have been left on our own in the dark, just fighting this life.”

Jonte said before corona, they would supply water and others push hand-driven carts before converging in the evening to unwind the day.

“Hii mambo ya curfew imefanya hata hatuonangi news tujue nini inaendelea. Mimi napatana na watu wananipea masks, eti nifunike mdomo na mapua. Sasa nashindwa ni gum nitavuta au ni mask nitavaa?” he said.

Stano said they would meet up in town and gather around some of the big screens installed on buildings to watch news and other entertainment programmes, but due to curfew, all that has been taken away from them.

He said by 6pm, they leave town headed for the slums because at least there, they will find a peaceful night away from police harassment.

“Some of us go to Kibra, others Kawangware, Mathare, Kayole and such areas. We look for a place to drink so we can forget about our nightmares, and that is what matters for us,” Stano said.

The children say all the measures the government wants implemented to contain the coronavirus remain but hot air because for them, they have nothing to lose.

There are no hotels or eateries to give us leftovers. No hawkers are selling food in town, so my brother things are really tough for us
Stano, street child

COMPROMISED IMMUNITY

A virologist from the Kenya Medical Research Institute says it is practically hard to tell street children to maintain social distance.

Dr Rosemary Sang said due to the current cold weather and the conditions the urchins are subjected to, by default, they need to be closer to each other.

“They are not living in normal circumstances, where the MoH guidelines and protocols apply. Unless someone reaches out to them and educates them on what the disease is and how they can protect themselves, then they remain at high risk of contracting the disease,” Sang said.

“How can you tell a street child to wash and sanitise hands when getting a bath is impossible? How do you expect them to wear masks when they are all over dustbins to get leftovers to quench their hunger?” 

She said immunity to Covid-19 is built on sound nutrition. Bearing in mind the youngsters feed on what others have left over means they have compromised immunity, and if one of them by bad luck contracts the disease, it would be a matter of life and death.

“In my view, this group is very vulnerable. In fact, what the Ministry of Health should have done is to classify them under the targeted groups for mass testing to ascertain the level of exposure,” Sang said.

She said the only advantage the homeless children have is they spend a lot of time in open spaces, as the virus is highly contagious indoors and covered spaces.

Since Independence, there has been an increase in street families in major urban centres in Kenya.

This is attributed to social and economic factors, such as poverty, unemployment, physical and mental health, addiction, family breakdown, and corporal punishment.

The 2019 census report established there are some 46,639 persons living on the streets across the country. Out of these, Nairobi has the highest at 15,337, an equivalent of 32.9 per cent.

The report indicated most of these street children are young people aged 10-34 years, with a large proportion being males compared to females. A significant number has been on the streets for more than 10 years and fully understands the ways to survive.

So far, no urchin has been reported to have tested positive of the coronavirus.

Nairobi Children Affairs deputy director Rosemary Kibathi said the children on the streets are not genuine but those called ‘street-connected’ because they are on a mission.

In an interview with the Star, she said City Hall has tried to keep them off the streets, and those with genuine situations are currently in rehabilitation and rescue centres.

“Those kids have a home and parents but only come to the streets to make a living. They prefer to be on the streets because they have freedom of choice, they can make money, peddle drugs and as a result of peer pressure,” she said.

This narrative is supported by the census report, which indicates that 80.3 per cent of street children know the whereabouts of their parents, compared to 19.7 per cent, who have no idea.

Some of the street children who were rounded up in an impromptu exercise in the Nairobi central business district on April 12, 2018.
Some of the street children who were rounded up in an impromptu exercise in the Nairobi central business district on April 12, 2018.
Image: COURTESY

HOLIDAY HUSTLE

Kibathi said the numbers usually surge during the April, August and December holidays, when schools close.

"This corona has really confirmed to us that with proper policies in place, we can get these kids off the streets,” she said.

When the restriction on movements was announced, many families "rushed to pick their children", in the fear they might be arrested and put in quarantine.

Bearing in mind the urchins are at high risk of contracting the disease, City Hall had stopped distribution of foodstuffs.

She said there is a designated group that gives out food every Friday at Jevanjee, Parklands and Globe roundabout. This includes face masks and sanitisers.

“The MoH has been conducting sensitisation programmes on prevention measures. Several volunteers trained on how to engage the children with an aim of helping them understand what the disease is and how to keep safe,” she said.

The State Department of Social Protection has deployed teams to find out how the children are coping with the pandemic.

While responding to questions, the communications team said the officers had established most of the street families out and about are those who are commuting every day from their homes.

“Due to Covid-19, many families are experiencing economic challenges, hence they cannot provide basic necessities for their children,” the department said.

"They sent them to the streets to go beg to put food on the tables. Others will work as parking boys and car cleaners to earn something little."

The department urged the parents to take a frontline responsibility in ensuring the children adhere to Covid-19 protocols.

For those who have absolutely nowhere to go, the department is partnering with institutions that offer rescue, rehabilitation, reintegration and re-socialisation.

These institutions usually interact with the street families prior to the rescuing, but for now, those might not be the safest places, given the population and issue on social distancing.  

"The safest place to be is home. Let parents take responsibility,” the department said.

While some just enjoy begging and scavenging, factors driving the surging numbers include unemployment, inability to cope with school life, peer pressure, being born in the streets and insecurity.

The major activities undertaken by these children include drug and alcohol peddling, water fetching, garbage collection, sex work, petty crime, parking and begging.

While during the day most of them engage in begging and scavenging, at night, males mostly engage in garbage collection, drug and alcohol peddling, while most females engage in sex work.

How can you tell a street child to wash and sanitise hands when getting a bath is impossible? How do you expect them to wear masks when they are all over dustbins to get leftovers?
Dr Rosemary Sang

GROOMED BY CARTELS

The government has made efforts to rid the streets of urchins. The main problem has been cartels and street stakeholders, who have gone to every length to keep the children on the streets.

A senior officer at the Social Protection department said these cartels use those aged between four and six years to peddle drugs.

“They are hosted in high-end city hotels between three and six months and undertaken through rigorous training on how to supply the drugs. Prominent people driving high-end cars are behind the cartel network,” the source said.

The source said the cartels cater for the full accommodation of these children in these hotels.

“During the day they will be on the streets, begging, but at night, they check-in in their respective hotels. After the intensive training, they take an oath not to disclose any information in case they are arrested," the official said.

"Some swallow the drugs while others are injected. They walk around with them, waiting for potential buyers, and once identified, the cartels will then insert fingers in their private parts and get them for those that swallow. 

“It is said because these kids smell poop the whole day and they have totally been messed with, they can’t control themselves due to frequent violent insertion of fingers.”

The official said for young girls, the cartels have upped their game. These girls are groomed into prostitutes and during the night, they are connected to clients in these hotels.

Street children share a meal at the park
Street children share a meal at the park
Image: DENNIS DIBONDO

On the other hand, City Hall blames prominent churches in the city that have also been roped into the syndicate and use these children to get funds from potential donors.

“They pretend to be helping the kids by giving them food. They take photos and send to the donors, claiming they have programmes to rehabilitate the children,” Kibathi said.

She said every time the county moves in to get the children off the streets, the cartels will fight back by providing safe havens where they hide.

“It is very simple, if you want to get hold of any street child, just give them food. These churches, CBOs and NGOs have known this secret and take advantage to keep them on the streets,” she said.

“Instead of taking advantage of such innocent kids who end up being molested and sexually abused, these churches can come up with better programmes that can see the children re-linked with their families.” 

Kibathi said after getting the stories from those they have managed to rescue, they take them through rigorous counselling and embark on a journey to link them with their families.

“In most cases, we have had success bonding, but it is never easy. What has always manifested is the aspect of poor parenting. Some parents have just become irresponsible. They encourage these kids to go to the street so they can bring them money,” she said.

She said the children take an oath to lie that their parents are dead, but when they are helped through to the university, on graduation day, the parents show up.

“Sometimes after a series of counselling sessions, the kids will slowly open up and let it out. That is when you realise how parents have become inhuman out here,” Kibathi said.

"Let it be known that there is no child without a parent or relative. They are always rebellious and take a longer time to open up, but with time and lots of patience, we have managed,” she said.