Homelessness in Nairobi is not always apparent to the passer by. By night the streets of central town are not full of people sleeping rough as is often the case in affluent “developed” cities. Even in slums, homelessness is quite contained, with people cramming into tiny huts but not on the beaten paths outside.
There is, however, one part of the population that makes a living in the shadows of Nairobi’s streets. These are youth, constantly on the run from the police, many of whom make a bed for themselves when night falls wherever they can.
The Undugu society of Kenya, a prominent organization in the sector, divides Nairobi’s street children into four categories: first there are children who work and live on the street full-time, living in groups in temporary shelters; second there are children who work in the streets by day but go home to families in the evening (this category constitutes the majority of street children in Kenya); third there are children who are on the streets occasionally, such as on the weekends or during school holidays; finally there are “street families”, children whose parents are also on the streets.
Nairobi’s street youth, known as chokora (scavengers), can be seen by day walking through the streets with a sack slung over their shoulder, looking through trash cans.
Earlier this week URB.IM photographer Michael Obach went to Nairobi’s Westlands neighborhood to talk to some of the young boys who live all of their life on the street. Westlands is one of the city’s mixed neighborhoods in which the rich, the poor and many of those in between coexist in relative harmony.
Obach wanted to find out more about what organizations were trying to help these youth and how.
The following are some excerpts from one of his conversations:
MO: What kind of life do you live, how do you get food, where do you sleep and what problems do you face?
Isaac Ogang a.k.a Izzoh: I’m 26 and have lived on and off the streets for 15 years. I live with my friends, my parents are pastoralists in Turkana (Northern Kenya) but they weren’t financially strong so I moved to Nairobi when I was eleven, I don’t know if I will find my family if I go home.
I make my money by carrying a gunnia (gunny sack) and picking up plastic, paper and metal. This gives me enough to get some food. I also eat what I find on the streets and in dustbins. We all pick out the good food, put it in tins and cook it in the evening on a fire.
We try to sleep in abandoned houses or construction sites but most of the time we are kicked out and have to make do with bags and cartons. As time goes by you get used to sniffing glue, everyone on the streets sniffs glue or uses something else. We use this for many reasons: because we get cold, because we don’t have shelter, because we are hungry and because the mosquitoes are disturbing us.
I make about 100 shillings a day (a bit more than a dollar). Some of the boys here don’t feel this is enough so they end up stealing too.
When the police come we have to be on our toes. They often stop and harass us. Sometimes they arrest us for no reason. In Kenya corruption is real, if one of us goes to prison we come together and go to the police station; we can’t go without money though. There we meet the bigger heads and we talk to them nicely and give them some money and they release our friend.
MO: What organizations have tried to help you and your friends out of the streets?
Izzoh: There are organizations that try to help youth like us. When I came to Nairobi I attended the Don Bosco Boys school. Apart from them, there is also IAfrika, the Undugu society and Jamii Bora. There are also other religious organisations like Made in the Streets that works in Eastleigh and others that try to help youth like us but I have not seen them here in Westlands.
MO: In what way do these organizations try to help you?
Izzoh: At Don Bosco I remember they taught people carpentry, mechanics, engineering, wiring and other skills that would get them jobs. They also wanted to train kids to help other kids out of the streets. I was with them until standard 8 but then I ran away.
MO: How do you feel these organisations could improve the work they do?
Izzoh: I think that for these organizations to improve they must coordinate their work with the government. The NGOs cannot cover all of the street kids of Nairobi (around 60,000).
We’ve chosen a new government now and we have a constitution. We are Kenyans like other Kenyans and we feel our Ward representatives should register us and start a project. Here in Westlands, we are about 400 street boys. The government should send the small children to schools. Us, we already do so much cleaning and recycling around the city, why can’t they make our work formal? We would like to be able to register ourselves as a cooperative, maybe get a loan so we can buy a lorry or carts to collect the rubbish for recycling. We are the main recyclers in this city, if we could just do this in an official way it would be easier to help ourselves instead of having to ask people for food.
This article was originally published on urb.im in March 2013