A project that was seen as a masterstroke in the effort to rid Nairobi of street families seems to have fizzled out as soon as it started.
In July 2015, then Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero announced that his administration was putting up a street children’s rehabilitation centre in Ruai, Kasarani Sub-county.
The facility would cost the taxpayers Sh200 million. Once complete, the Ruai Street Children’s Rehabilitation Centre would accommodate 3,000 street families and offer pre-primary, primary and secondary education.
The centre would also feature a modern vocational and training centre to teach practical courses. A football pitch, basketball court and an indoor games arena were some of the planned recreational facilities. “There will be psycho-social workers and other experts on hand to support the families and children that may have challenges arising from their tough life on the streets,” Dr Kidero said at the time.
There was so much fanfare around the project, even the national government chipped in, promising to donate more land for the cause. In total, 40 acres were set aside.
For the first time in the history of the city, authorities had demonstrated commitment to addressing the long-standing menace once and for all. Coming at a time when the Consortium of Street Children estimated street families in the city to be upwards of 60,000, the project was a timely magic wand.
Previous efforts to rid the city of the families had flopped in spectacular fashion, often because of ineffective approaches. Street families would normally be arrested and locked up. Soon after release, they would return to the streets.
According to then Education, Youth and Social Services executive Anne Lokidor, the centre would be up and running by June 2017.
Kidero’s administration also approved Sh150 million for the project in 2016. In late 2017, the county leadership shifted from Dr Kidero to Mr Mike Sonko, who allocated a further Sh1.5 billion in 2017 for mapping, rehabilitation and training of street families in the city.
Four years later, all there is to show is a barely developed shell of a building – a far cry from the ultra-modern training centre that was promised. Building equipment and other construction materials lie unused and rusting all over the compound. Some sections of the fence are rotting and falling off.
Mr Elkana Jacob, the county government’s communications director, says the facility is “48 per cent complete (and) moving with much speed” even as evidence on the ground tells a story of mismanagement and neglect.
Workers at the construction site, some of whom have worked here since the project began in 2016 and who spoke on condition of anonymity, say the project has stalled on different occasions, the longest period being more than a year from 2016 to mid-2018.
The rehabilitation centre was one of the incomplete projects mentioned in Auditor General Edward Ouko’s report last year. When Mr Ouko visited the centre in 2016, works valued at Sh21 million had been certified for payment, but no cent had been paid yet, forcing the contractor to abandon the work.
Supplies, the workers at the site said, come in a trickle, usually on a need basis. When the Saturday Nation visited the construction site earlier this week, the manager was away in Nairobi “to collect materials.”
At the time of our visit, there was minimal activity at the site. Only eight men were on duty – two masons and six construction hands. The team, we learnt, has consistently worked at the site for five days every week since February this year. But even though construction works resumed in 2018, only incomplete walls on what is supposed to be the first floor of the building stand as evidence of work. Representatives of the contractor, Tecina General Contractors, are rarely at the site, the Saturday Nation learnt.
Mr Shem Ombura, the county director of social services, says only Sh29 million has so far been paid to the contractor, with an additional Sh20 million budgeted for in the current financial year. He also blames the current state of affairs on the previous administration.
“Kidero did not pay any money to the contractor. The money had been allocated, but none was paid. This is why the construction stopped.” However, contrary to what Mr Jacob said, Mr Ombura noted that the project is now 35 per cent complete.
Ironically, the county this week vowed to continue its crackdown on street families to “reunite them with their families”, in what appears to be a change of tune on earlier efforts to rehabilitate and offer them practical skills for self-dependence.
Furthermore, the county claims in the last two years under Governor Sonko, the number of street families in the capital has dropped to 40,000 from 60,000 during Dr Kidero’s term.
Education, Social Services and Gender executive Lucia Mulwa says 20,000 street children have been reunited with their families since Mr Sonko came to power. There is, however, scanty evidence that these street children have indeed rejoined their families or even been rehabilitated.
To put this into perspective, Nairobi County has only four rehabilitation centres, which the county is renovating at a cost of Sh21 million.
The four are Mji wa Huruma in Kayole, Makadara, Shauri Moyo and Joseph Kang’ethe, all with a combined capacity of less than 300 children.
Strained resources and inadequate capacity to accommodate large numbers of children has often been counterproductive, as most of those arrested and put here end up suffering.
So what happened to the Ruai project? How was the money allocated spent? Is there hope that the centre will reach completion? If so, when?
Queries by the Saturday Nation regarding the project turned into a game of musical chairs, with none of the officials contacted willing to shed light on the matter.
First, the Ruai sub-county administrator, identified only as Jane, appeared to not know its existence or location. “I can’t talk about that issue. Please contact the department of education and social services,’’ Jane said before hanging up.
Officials at City Hall Annex, where the county executive for education is based, were non-committal. Ms Mulwa asked this reporter to talk to the department’s chief communication officer. The officer, Mr Jairus Musumba, said someone else at the county was better placed to answer our queries, and referred us to Mr Elkana Jacob.
A source privy to the flow of information at the county headquarters revealed that while each department has a spokesperson, officials must get express permission from Mr Jacob before engaging the media, “to avoid antagonising the county’s position” on the matter at hand.
As the city authorities refuse to come clean about how the millions allocated for the project were spent, or when the project will be completed, if at all, vulnerable street children continue to suffer. They also put city dwellers at risk of being mugged as the children become increasingly desperate for food. Additionally, street children are used as conduits in the drug trade.
For four years now, Abdulkarim Omar, 16, has relied on hand-outs from city residents for survival, supplementing this by working as a parking attendant along Tubman Road and Banda Street.
Omar reveals that he comes from a family of peasants in Kilifi County. On many nights, he and his three siblings would go to bed hungry, owing to extreme poverty levels in the area.
To escape that poverty, Omar, who was then in Standard Five, hid in a cargo truck and ended up in the streets of Nairobi. “I have been arrested many times for being on the streets. Every time, I’m lucky to be released,” he says.
He offers insights into the state of the existing county rehab centres. “Last year, I stayed at a rehab for three months. There was so much suffering. Food was inadequate, sick children were ignored,” he says.
While the county government promises to take street children back to school upon arrest, those who spoke to the Saturday Nation revealed that some of them are kept for up to a year before they are enrolled in any school. Others are released back into the streets.
Offered the chance to return home, Omar would not consider it. “I’m better off begging,” he says. “At least I don’t go for a day without something to eat. Why go back home to suffer?”
Would he mug? To survive, yes, he says. “I can’t starve while other people have food and money to spare. I would use force if I have to.”
When he scored 301 marks in the 2012 Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams, Dennis Mutugi’s life was firmly on course for a decent future. At least that is what the boy from Embu had hoped for when he was admitted to Kangaru DEB Secondary School in Embu in 2013.
Then his mother died and with no one to pay his school fees, Mutugi, 21, dropped out of Form One. First, he stayed in Embu town taking menial jobs to fend for himself while trying to figure out his suddenly foggy future.
When an opportunity to travel to Nairobi came up in 2015, Mutugi did not think twice. But his arrival in the capital would mark the beginning of life as a street boy, living from hand to mouth. Four years on, Mutugi is still navigating the city’s streets. “I live off alms from Good Samaritans,” he says.
Some days he chances upon odd jobs in town. “A job could involve loading or offloading a lorry, washing someone’s car or helping to take garbage from hotels to the dumpsite. Some days I’m paid, other times I’m short-changed.”
On extremely bad days, Mutugi eats scraps from trash bins, or goes to sleep hungry. Such miseries have only heightened his resentment towards Nairobi’s well-to-do folks “especially those who exploit us. When someone fails to pay me for work done, I have to use other means. Sometimes I have to use force,” he says, hinting at mugging.
Like Omar, the abrupt end of his education means Mutugi cannot look for a formal job. “If someone could sponsor me, I would happily restart my secondary studies,” he says. “I have been hoping to acquire a technical skill so that I work to earn a living. But I don’t have the money to enroll for a course.”
For many of street denizens, there is no option about where to live — unless the county government commits to completing the Ruai centre.
Angel Warira, 19, is wispy, but the hazards of street life have aged the mother of two children. Sniffing glue and abusing other drugs has not helped her health either.
Warira radiates a lethargic look — admittedly from smoking bhang — and occasionally conceals her dark crimson eyes by whipping her hand over her face.
The death of her parents in a road accident in 2012 and the subsequent hostility of her family in Kirinyaga County pushed the lastborn child in a family of three children to drop out of Standard Seven and flee home to seek refuge in Nairobi at the age of 12.
Seven years and two children later, returning to the village is off the cards. She fends for her daughter aged five and a toddler of 18 months exclusively from freebies.
Her hunting ground is mostly alleys along Muindi Mbingu and Monrovia streets. “I don’t have a job,” says the lactating mother. “I can’t get a job because I don’t have any certificate or an identity card. Without any skill or money to start a business, how else can my children and I survive?” she asks.
Life on the streets knows no courtesy, and when food gifts and money are not forthcoming, mothers fight for the little that comes their way. A mother has to be agile and fast lest they and their child starve.
Sometimes Warira takes laundry jobs in the estates, but even these pay poorly and some people exploit her desperation by overworking her. For her, begging is a less strenuous option.
As Mutugi admits, drug gangs, especially in downtown Nairobi, exploit vulnerable street boys, sometimes with the threat of violence, to traffic hard drugs on their behalf. “Most of the boys I know do it for protection, a tip or food. They have no choice,” Mutugi says. When the police or county stewards arrest them, they confiscate their money and other possessions. Sometimes they are even assaulted, Mutugi adds.
Most street families have no place to call home besides these streets. “I have been here for nearly 10 years now,” says a street woman named Rachael Wamuyu. “My family wouldn’t want to see me.” Wamuyu, 22, cut ties with her parents and fled her Nyeri home in 2010 following an unclear dispute. She believes they have since moved on.
Warira says her relations have abandoned her, and have even dared her to ever set foot back in what she used to call home. It is for this reason that she stopped associating with her village folks and decided to chart her own path in life. To her, family is anyone who shares in her agonies.
“Strangers who help me to raise my children are more family to me than my uncles and aunts who made my life miserable,’’ she says reflectively.
Omar, Mutugi and tens of other urchins eat at a backstreet food kiosk at Tsunami area off Kirinyaga Road, where remains of ugali, rice and soup sell for as low as Sh20 a plate.
Mutugi, who looks fairly decent for a street boy, spends whatever remains of the money from strangers to buy clothes and shoes at Gikomba and Muthurwa markets. “I use a public bathroom in town where I pay Sh30 to take a bath,” he says.
Whereas he could clean in the river, just like his peers, Mutugi thinks the river is too filthy for a healthy dive. “Many street families wash their clothes, bath and swim in Nairobi River. They don’t mind the filth,” he says. Even to Mutugi, it is strange how none of his peers has ever contracted a waterborne disease from bathing in the river. Glue-sniffing and drug abuse among street uechins is not merely a lifestyle, but a survival mechanism, they tell Saturday Nation. Taking a hit of glue helps to keep the body warm in the frigid conditions outside, especially at night.
“I used to sniff glue, but after developing chest problems, I stopped,” Mutugi says, adding that he now smokes bhang to get his mind off his miseries. “To survive here, you have to be high,” he says wryly. “Several puffs keep me high for some few hours. Without using any drug, life here is unbearable.’’
Mutugi’s body features scars of wounds in various stages of recovery, some from accidents and others deliberately inflicted on him by county workers.
But one fresh wound right above his left ankle stands out. “I sustained this one week ago. I was running from the police when I stepped on a piece of rusted steel. I had bled a lot, but I managed to avoid arrest,” he says with a resigned look.
Fleeing does not always end successfully though. There are times when the pursuers corner their target.
“When they arrest you, county officers force you to strip before attacking you in turns with whips. This has happened to me on several occasions when I couldn’t run,’’ he recounts.
At the Makadara Law Courts where suspects of minor offences are taken, trumped-up charges such as mugging are often made against them, they say. ‘Kubali ngori’, Mutugi says, is street parlance for admission of guilt even when the accused person is not culpable, so that they can be sentenced, failure to which they are taken to remand for weeks and even months.
“Life in remand is miserable. Food is very little and the state of hygiene is also very poor,” Mutugi explains. “Things are much better in jail,” he adds. “You toil all day long, but at least you are fed properly.”