Streetwise Transformers: ‘Why Chokoraa are still our children’
“Unity is our pride…. I am forever Kenyan.” When I think of Eric Wainaina’s Daima song, I ponder on the meaning of those words, beyond patriotism. What makes a country? I think a country is made up of leadership that starts from the homes. Have you ever wondered why there are so many street children? I spent my early childhood out of Nairobi and when we were moving to this place famously known as the city under the sun, I was told many pleasant things about it. I was told that the buildings were tall, and everyone was rich. I was told there were many cars and places where I could play as a child. I was told people only spoke English in the big city. It sounded like a place out of this world. However, I was warned about one thing. They called them ‘chokoraa.’
‘What is chokoraa?’ ‘They are children in the streets who steal your phones and even worse, they could threaten to smear human faecal matter on your face,’ they said. It sounded scary, unbelievable to say the least. These are the children and young people who roam our streets. They often go hungry and barely have anything to wear. I see them bathing in the dirty river here in the city. A few days ago, I decided to go to Uhuru Park early in the morning. This is where these children and young people spend their nights, hurdled together in the cold. I see some of them scrapping the dustbins, getting some leftover foods and lighting a little fire by the road to cook their meal.
We call them ‘chokoraa.’ We forget they are children, they are youth, they are human. Their clothes are always dirty and torn. Others wear different shoes on both legs. They go to dumpsites, looking for metal scraps and plastic to recycle, all for a plate of food. Others die of pneumonia and malaria. Even sadder for others, they use drugs to the extent that they get knocked out and when it rains heavily, they are washed away by the floods.
One of the most common reasons that lead to the continuous rise of street children is often domestic violence. In a home where the parents are always fighting, the children are never at peace. You also find that parents who drink a lot tend to be violent. Most of them have casual jobs. The little they earn is spent on cheap alcohol. Thus, they fail to provide for the basic needs of their children. Consequently, many of them go out to beg and for others, they decide that remaining out in the street is a better option.
Children are often victims of sexual abuse. They are defiled by those who are close to them, often caregivers and neighbors. It is sad to note that some of these children who are taken advantage of are never given the support that they need. These situations are often settled internally to avoid bringing shame to the community and family. Community elders are used to intervene where the perpetrator only pays a small fine or provides a sheep or goat as compensation. These children are left scarred without undergoing any counseling. They feel scared and ashamed and eventually opt to leave home.
Many children also report that coming from single-family homes is very difficult. Often, when one of the parents remarries, they are abused by the stepparent. You find that when other children are born, they are favored over them and they feel unloved. They go out to the streets to search for a company that can fulfill their need for love. For others, petty crimes and using drugs gives them the excitement that allows them to forget the challenges they have.
While most children are led to the streets due to abuse, others say that they were influenced by peer pressure. Adolescents are often the victims of peer pressure and it is the age of experimentation. Many parents try to raise their children well, providing for their needs and giving them proper guidance and counseling. However, once they interact with other children in school or anywhere outside the home, they get to hear stories of how their friends are using drugs or getting into romantic relationships. They try out the same behavior and with time, you realize there is a drop in their academic performance and a momentous change in behavior. Some of the children end up in the streets because they think it is cool.
For many of these children and young people, change is all they wish for if only they get a second chance in life. Life gets harder. They meet young people who have been in the streets longer and are very frustrated. They tend to fight a lot, especially for resources such as food and clothes that are given out as donations.
I had the opportunity to interact with Streetwise Transformers last year. This is a humanitarian community-based organization registered under the Ministry of Labour, Social Security and Services and has been working in Nairobi, Kenya to restore the dignity of the individuals and families living in the streets, street-connected situations and slums with some bias on children and youth development.
In 2018, Streetwise Transformers organized an event to promote wellness for young people living in the streets. Some of the activities included voluntary counseling and testing for HIV, sports and a feeding program done right after. The Kenyan public was kind enough to donate money that was used in purchasing foodstuff, sanitary pads and underwear. People also donated their old clothes that went a long way in supporting these young people.
“Our thematic areas include; Education and Skills Development, Health Programming, Sport and Talent Development, Outreach Programs, Empowerment and Mentorship as well as Advocacy and Lobbying,” says Michael Opiyo, one of the founders.
One of their most recent activities includes using Sports as a means of change. Children, youth and women living in the streets and street-connected environments participated in activities that allowed them to play, socialize, learn, and express themselves as they work towards rebuilding their lives. This was a good opportunity to awareness on challenges being faced by children and youth living in the streets and street-connected situations, sensitizing the families on the effects of the drugs and substance abuse and providing psychosocial and health support as well linking them to various support systems while proving partner organizations an opportunity to scout and document the different cases.
As I walk through the streets in downtown Nairobi, I’m met by a stench from a pile of rubbish from one of the corners. ‘Goodness, I wish I could walk around and not see this. I wish I could breathe in the fresh air and not have to worry about that matatu running into me. Mostly, I wish, I wouldn’t have to see any child walk around in this side of town, begging for money, holding on to a bottle of glue or a piece of cloth, dipped in airplane fuel commonly referred to as ‘msii.’ Who is selling this stuff anyway? Can they be stopped?’ I think to myself.
Things can change for many people living in the streets if we find sustainable solutions. This includes going back to the homes and ensuring that children are protected. Further, organisations like Streetwise Transformers can partner or continue to partner with agencies that allow for a system of transition from the streets through rehabilitation, education or apprenticeship.