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Thursday, 13 February, 2003, 10:34 GMT
New hope for Kenya's street kids
Street boy in Nairobi
Some 10,000 people live on Nairobi's streets

They have haunted Nairobi for years.

Like jittery ghosts, Kenya's street children drift through the traffic and the crowds, bottles of glue or solvent wedged firmly in their young mouths, eyes glazed, grimy hands poised to beg or steal.

Ignored, pitied and feared in equal measure, they have become part of the city's corrupt, decaying infrastructure - like the policemen they bribe and sewers they sleep in.

Now I want to go back to school, and one day, I want to be a driver

John Kagema, 12
Former street kid
But now, a bold campaign has been launched to try to remove the estimated 10,000 people who sleep rough every night in the Kenyan capital.

The new government - elected in December - is promising dramatic results.

"We're rushed off our feet," says Margaret Jobita, Director of Social Services and Housing at Nairobi City Council.

"But now we have the political will we're surprised at how much we can achieve... We have been producing beautiful plans and papers for years, but now we are finally acting."

Sniffing solvents

On the edge of Nairobi, in a hall crowded with some 200 street boys, 12-year-old John Kagema wolfs down a plate of maize and beans.

"My life has changed," he says, simply and quietly.

"Here they have helped me with food and clothes. Now I want to go back to school, and one day, I want to be a driver. "

President Mwai Kibaki
Kibaki has vowed to clean up Kenya

Around him, boys in filthy t-shirts and bare feet jostle and shout.

About a quarter are still clutching their plastic bottles of solvent.

This is one of three newly opened centres where street dwellers are being invited to come for food, shelter and the promise of a job, or schooling.

But despite the boisterous optimism of the children, it is also painfully clear that there is no miracle cure for the social and economic misery that has pushed these children out of their homes.

"I can't go back," says John.

"My mother beat me and so did my teacher. So I ran away. Life on the street was hard too. The big boys hit me and stole my money and my sniff (solvent)."

'Testing waters'

Critics say the government's plans to "clean up" the streets are ludicrously optimistic and short sighted - that they are trying to treat the symptoms and not tackle the cure.

But Margaret Jobita points out that the same critics also ridiculed the government's radical decision to introduce free primary education for all, overnight.

I will do anything - even cleaning toilets

Edina Achieng

The chaos predicted then was short lived.

"We're not worried about money," she says. "We are testing the waters to see how deep they are. We have provoked a situation, and now we will deal with it in the Kenyan way."

A few miles away, in a community centre surrounded by derelict apartment blocks and long grass, Edina Achieng breastfeeds her two-month-old daughter, Tane.

Edina, 28, has just spent her first night off the street in three years.

"Blankets!" she says, giggling.

Pavement births

Around the corner, a dozen women are washing their street clothes with soap and water.

Two toddlers play in puddles.

Metalworker in Kibera
Jobs are hard to come by in Nairobi

Edina has four children in all.

Two were born on a Nairobi pavement. Tane is the product of a vicious gang rape last year during which Edina's oldest daughter, six year old Cheryl, was badly burned down her side.

"They told me they'd kill all of us if I refuse. One of them took some petrol, and then I saw the children's clothes on fire," she remembers.

"So I told them - do what you want."

Today, Edina is busy mapping her way out of poverty.

"First a home," she says, "then school for my children. Then a job. If they look at me they can see I am a normal person. I will do anything - even cleaning toilets."

But what if the government fails to live up to its promises?

"Ah, that cannot happen," she declares.

"They would not have brought us here in that case."

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29 Jul 00 | Africa
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