Dilemma of street children as world marks Children's Day

One in town reminiscent of character in Oliver Twist

In Summary

• Same energy channelled to help children out of schools should help street children

Schoolchildren follow proceedings at a World Children's Day event
Schoolchildren follow proceedings at a World Children's Day event
Image: FILE

We exist in a season of the law here in Kenya today. With the installation of a new president of the Supreme Court, Justice Martha Koome, the first female to hold the office, and the landmark High Court ruling against the Building Bridges Initiative, discussions on our national laws are the order of the day.

Granted, the 2010 Constitution of Kenya is often touted as one of the most progressive on the continent and beyond. Many are familiar with Chapter Six that touches on integrity issues for holders of public office, among many other things.

Kenyans cite it as they continue to follow the legal discussion on whether or not the country is staring at a constitutional review opportunity, as our leaders say. Adults across the country are not sparing chances to make known their views on this hot potato, be it on television, radio call-in shows, pulpits or even funerary ceremonies.

It is said that the BBI is necessary to protect the land (read, adults) from cycles of violence that visit the land at each election(eering) season. 

However, this weekend, as the international community marks World Day Against Child Labour, there is a need to raise awareness on the plight of children and their rights or securities, too. Aren’t they enshrined both in national and international laws also?

The rights of all children of Kenya to protection against all manner of violence and atrocious practices, with or without a successful BBI mission, is recognised by Article 53 of the 2010 Kenyan constitution.

Additionally, our country has ratified, among others, the Child Rights Convention of 1989 and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

These laws are meant to create safe spaces for childhood and children even in a land reeling from economic turmoil, constitutional debates and a ravaging global pandemic. It is said where and when adults suffer, children suffer more. This being true before, during or after each election cycle in Kenya.

The need to raise awareness about issues faced by children in our society is acute today. The pandemic has exposed social blackspots that put the lives of children in grave danger.

Incessant and abrupt closure of schools has seen a spike in child abuse cases, paedophiles, truancy and a rise in child labour. The major streets of Nairobi and its satellite towns, such as Thika, abound with a soaring number of begging and hustling kids.

This week, by the statue of the independence freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi, one boldly blocked my rush to lunchtime prayers with a bold, “Ni kumi mi nataka.” Neither the shift from begging for a 10 bob coin to demanding it, nor the lifeless tone of the 10-year-old, escaped my startled heart.

He reminded me of the scores of desolate child characters who populate the pages of children's literature abroad and across Africa. Behold those younglings who, like phantoms, haunt the thoroughfares of our famed green city under the sun!

In the shivering liquid of his lost pair of eyes, in the pot-holed, old school cardigan he donned upon his rotund navel, in the rickety legs asunder now blocking the path of one taller than him by far, I saw old Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist.

Professor Emmanuel Mbogo
Professor Emmanuel Mbogo

Swimming in his protruding eye balls, I saw the urchin Peter and Zita of Watoto wa Maman’tilie (2002) by the famous Tanzanian novelist and playwright, Emmanuel Mbogo. They spoke softly not of a fairytale-like Alice in Wonderland but a cold street tale cooked out of our moral morass.

Mbogo taught for years at Maseno University and Kenyatta University, where I learned much from his socialist aesthetics in 2002 as his postgraduate student. Speaking to the Star from his base at the Open University of Tanzania, the East Germany-trained professor of theatre arts cautions society against turning away from the symbolic meaning of street urchins.

To briskly brush them aside often, or look the other way always, is a recipe for imminent social chaos. Like sores on the body of the capitalist capital city, they are a reminder of the nation’s own malaise.

As their population soars from street to street, day by day, sweeping them into green number-plated lorries to “rehabilitation camps” or “home counties” will not work. A comprehensive approach is needed that is paedo-centric and sustainable. It requires the combined efforts of both county and national governments.

Artists and journalists may break their nibs writing or run out of ink in their relentless attempts to highlight the plight of children in this pandemic. However, the buck stops with the institutions mandated to protect them, including the family unit. 

It is praiseworthy the energy with which our leaders address issues of children in schools. As we mark June 12 this year, may the same energy be channelled to help the children out of schools: the labouring children of the streets. Like Oliver Twist, they ask for more and this is reality, not drama or fiction.

Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University. He is a seasoned youth mentor, too.