I have a story to tell but I’m not sure how to tell it. It’s not my story but I was asked to tell it. The people who asked me wanted a window to the “outside world” to explain their situation and build awareness of their cause. They asked me to take photos and listen to what they had to say. It is an extraordinary glimpse into the lives of a group of individuals who struggle daily for survival and I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet them.
They are a group of homeless men and boys living in Kisumu. There are eight of them, and they range in age from 16 to 50-something. All have Christian/Western first names like Jared or Richard and second names of a tribal origin such as Ochieng or Owino. In this text, I’ll call them the “Group of 8”. I met them under the shade of a tree in the middle of a landfill on the outskirts of Kisumu City. I was taken here because this is their home.
I was introduced to them by someone who wanted me to see that despite the challenges of their situation they do the best they can with the means available to them. In this landfill, they feel safe from the hustle and bustle of the city where no one wants them and everyone regards them with suspicion.
But sitting there in the hot and humid sun, with sweat dripping off of me and swarms of flies landing all over me, I was totally freaked out. I had just been led through the landfill in my flip-flops, navigating broken glass, nails, splintered wood, discarded tin cans, plastic bags filled with who knows what, egg shells, light bulbs, and so on.
The smell of human excrement and garbage was overpowering and my nose was burning. I realized that this was probably a place where latrine waste is dumped. I resisted the urge to cover my mouth and nose with my t-shirt lest I insult them. This was their home. However, although I was intensely interested in their story, I also felt unsafe. As a mzungu, I am usually (and correctly) presumed to be (relatively) rich and I always need to be on my guard. In this setting, I had no protection, no one to cry out to. If they decided to attack me, my guide would be helpless and no one would come to help me.
It suddenly dawned on me I was perpetuating the very stigma my guide had brought me here to counteract. Doing my best to dispel my assumptions and prejudice, I drew on every ounce of cultural diplomacy I have learned in my travels over the years and also put some newly-acquired public health interviewing skills to work: listen, engage, inquire appreciatively, and smile. I decided to use my new Polaroid camera as a tool – taking a photo of us and offering it as a gift – to hopefully strengthening the initial bonds of trust. This camera, given to me by my girlfriend for my birthday has been a huge hit in Africa! My tactics worked and after 45 minutes the result was the round of smiles you see in the photo below.
The area in the photo above is their common gathering point where they meet to talk and cook their food over an open fire. Their meal for the day (they only eat once) would be a small bucket of sweet potatoes shared between all of them. To drink – fresh clean water from the local church.
As I soon discovered, my “guide” is much more than that. The Group of 8 call him their leader because he is an example of someone who was able to get himself off the street and re-integrate into “mainstream” society. 27 years old, he grew up on the streets sniffing glue. He slept in the same landfill and recycled plastic to earn 25 cents in a day if he was lucky. Today he has turned his life around and now lives in a shack with half a dozen other people, provides shelter food and education for five street kids on his salary of $100 a month (see photo at right), took on his niece after his sister died from HIV or TB (he’s not sure) and runs a small community organisation to help other street youth rise out of the same situation he was once in. I’m blown away by the impact he has on those around him. This guy is a hero and I could learn a lot from him.
The small community-based organization that the Leader is involved with is a group of about 50 former street boys who provide support to street youth in order to empower them to make decisions about how to improve their livelihood. The CBO members provide advice on how to generate income, staying safe as a group, the importance of being positive and the dangers of substance abuse. The Leader also invites them to attend informal church services which he facilitates. He says their attendance at church is one of the highlights of their week as it allows them to “escape” their situation for a while. Christianity is quite prevalent here, as a result of Britain’s former colonial rule. In fact, all these fellows have Christian/Western first names like Jared or Richard and second names of a tribal origin such as Ochieng or Owino. (My adopted Luo tribal name is Oloo, which means “out of the soil” – it’s a great conversation starter!) If the CBOs’ psychological support works, they offer the opportunity to move into a “group home” (to use a Western term) if they commit to dropping their street habits and getting back into school.
That is easier said than done. Many of the Group of 8 have grown up homeless and know no other lifestyle. Many of them are hooked on drugs such as changa’a (local moonshine), glue, paint thinner, marijuana or khat (a plant which is chewed on and has a stimulant effect). The Leader told me these help to numb the pain of being constantly bitten by critters at night such as mosquitoes or kiroboto (African bed bugs which thrive in dirty environments).
Despite the substance abuse, they are clearly self aware and working to help themselves (for starters, that’s what distinguishes the members of the Group of 8 from other street youth). One of them commented to me:
“We do what we can to improve our situation. We are adults now and the term “street boys” is no longer appropriate for us. We have to be responsible and find a way to help ourselves.“
The members of the Group of 8 make a living from collecting plastic bottles or bags from all over the city, scavenging through garbage, storm drains and dumpsters. If they can collect 2kg of bottles, they’ll make about US$0.25, if they’re lucky.
This is Jared (you can see him in the Group of 8 photo above with the outstretched arms). He told me about how he collects plastic bags used to package tree or plant seedlings and that have been discarded once the shrub has been replanted. He sells the bags back to the tree vendor. Great idea – and eco-friendly too! There is no greater motivation to succeed than survival, and I wondered what interesting water-related entrepreneurial opportunities I could identify for them through my research work here in Kenya. As Jared describes himself:
“I’m an enterprising individual; I can start my own thing.“
Many of them make their living from recycling and so that may be why they have come to call the local landfill home. Each of them were eager to show me how they had made a comfortable space for themselves in the area and were fiercely proud of it. The landfill itself is a large plot – approximately 1 square kilometre. About three-quarters of it are filled with refuse. The other part is mainly shrubbery and is the area where most of them have carved out a spot to sleep.
As I left the landfill the same way I came in, I thought about what an amazing situation this was. Against so much adversity, these individuals had found a place they felt comfortable in, a group they belonged to, and mechanisms for survival that worked. They also had a goal of a better life in mind and people to help them get there. Glancing back, I saw them watching me leave. I offered a wave to my new friends and hoped to see them again.
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