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“Last year, when I started my social work career, I was so nervous to come into the streets and meet these children, a community known for their gang violence and excessive drug use. Laura, I am truly humbled you are taking this risk with your life.”
HOLD UP! What did John, a native Kenyan MAN just say to me? What was I about to do?! Can I stop and think about this for a moment?
Instead of building my resume at an office desk, I was roaming into the heart of violence in Nairobi, Kenya. Why didn’t I choose one of the other, safer, easier, more comfortable options for my summer?
“Muthurwa Market, Get out!” The crowd on the matatu (public minibus) pushed their way off. I could barely hear myself think over the Public Enemy song blasting from the street corner. I received countless stop-and-stares getting off the bus as I searched for John and Wambui.
I looked quite out of place. I was a white girl from the United States, alone in an East African city market. The clamor of city life became much more distressing as I tried to process my newly realized fears.
After a few moments of searching the crowd, I finally found them. John and Wambui are social workers from Tumaini Kwa Watoto (Children of Hope) and they were leading me into my first day on the streets to meet runaway children.
I knew I would be safe with them; Wambui had been with the organization for 10 years and John was born and raised in Nairobi, but I was still uncomfortable and uncertain of what I was about to experience.
They led me into the market. It was full of colors, fresh fruit, textiles, and jewelry. The place was alive. We wove our way through the hustle of bargaining and loudness of American pop music towards the back, where street children hang out. Once we walked out of the market area, the misty overcast day accentuated the gloom of the entire situation.
Landscape of Despair
As we walked, the view changed from a community of excitement to a landscape of despair. Kids who have been rejected by society sat in the mud or begged for food from street vendors. These young boys were society’s unwanted. Their faces were a reflection of their daily struggle to find a community where they felt valued. From conversations with Wambui, I knew that most of them found support only from the gangs that mercilessly prowl these streets.
My eyes, throat, nose and lungs burned from the invasive scent of inhalants. The smell was coming from the breath of the young boys crowding around me. Glue and methane are two of the easiest drugs to come by and the most commonly abused substances on the street.
I stood next to a young boy, about 10 years old, hiding a bottle of glue in his shirt sleeve to protect it from the sight of the social workers. His puffy, red, dilated eyes were barely able to focus on me as he reached out for a fist bump. He was so high from huffing glue, I’m certain he didn’t even realize how badly he was shaking from the cold winter rains. My heart was broken. Where could there possibly be hope in this situation?
I had seen children living in poverty before. In other travels to Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti, I had seen children who had nothing other than their family for support. But as I walked down this street full of young runaways, I saw something much more disturbing. I saw children with not only nothing, but no one.
These young boys had ended up on the streets alone. They were struggling through the injustice of poverty, many swept up into the psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical pain of gang violence. Most of them turned to drugs because they had no more family or real relationships to depend on. They were truly alone. Who was providing hope for them?
Where is the Hope?
In my desperation, I needed help to cope with the situation. How do I respond to these boys? What do I say? How do I deal with this myself? Where is the hope?
I looked to see how Wambui and John were responding, and that’s when I found the hope. I realized in that moment that these boys had found their hope, too.
I saw friendship. I saw relationships. I saw bonds between these two caring, compassionate individuals and these boys who have been stripped of their innocence.
As Wambui approached the boys, their faces lit up. Through the relationships she’s built with them, Wambui has shown these boys that there is someone willing to invest in them. She is a reflection of love and a source of compassion. Through social workers like John and Wambui there is a reminder of their home, and their roots, and the places where they belong.
Tumaini Kwa Watoto helped me see the importance of building relationships with these boys. They are offering a source of empowerment through friendships , and they are opening the eyes of these children to see that they are capable of living a life that holds so much more.
Wambui and John are helping these boys find their identity off the streets, and away from gangs. They are filled with potential and opportunity, and because of the social workers like Wambui and John, these children have people that want them to reach it.
As I left the streets that day, I was upset. I was mad that these children weren’t in a place where they could see their value. I was angry that they were trapped in a lifestyle where they are given no dignity or acknowledgment as human beings. I was mad that these kids weren’t able to just be kids, but they were forced to struggle alone through the difficulties that faced them on street life.
But I was also filled with encouragement and hope. I am honored to sit at the feet of these Kenyan leaders, Wambui and John. I am honored to learn from them and watch how they are empowering the next generation of Kenya. There is hope for the children in Kenya; and I’m so excited to continue learning from the leaders in Tumaini Kwa Watoto this summer.
About the Author: Laura is a 2014 WND Intern. Born and raised in St.Paul, Minne-snow-ta, but has spent the last three years of her life in Indianapolis as a Butler Bulldog studying Media, Rhetoric & Culture. Laura enjoys learning about tigers, coffee bean roasting, and international politics. She has vast knowledge in the history of rap music and Boy Meets World.