‘When you get a chance to help, help’
|Saving Kenya’s Street Children
There are approximately 1.3 million children orphaned by AIDS in Kenya, and many of these children live on the streets of the capital city. Other children seek refuge from abusive homes, and still others are abandoned by their parents who, given the country’s unemployment rate of 75 percent, cannot afford to care for them.
The Watoto Village project provides homes, schooling, health care and love to the street
children of Nairobi. (Watoto means children in Swahili.) Project founder and executive director Wambui Jackie Chege came to the University of
Virginia on Nov. 9 to speak about her work.
By Ashley Edmonds
It all began with an outstretched hand and a tearful request for a single shilling.
Wambui Jackie Chege was 12 years old, purchasing groceries for her mother at her neighborhood store in Nairobi, Kenya. A small boy, “glassy-eyed, dirty and crying,” stretched out his hand and asked for a shilling.
She bought the boy some bread then spent the rest of her walk home wondering how to explain to her mother where the money went. She made up a story about losing the money, then quietly submitted to a scolding by her mother about her carelessness.
Before an audience of roughly 90 people at the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library Auditorium, Chege described this random encounter as the first step in what has become her life’s work: rescuing Nairobi’s more than 60,000 street children, one child at a time. Chege’s Nov. 9 talk was the latest in the U.Va. Women’s Center’s series on Local and Global Challenges for Women, and was co-sponsored by the Studies in Women and Gender program.
Chege painted a grim picture of the odds faced by Kenya’s children: there are approximately 1.3 million children orphaned by AIDS, and many of them live on the streets of the capital city. Other children seek refuge from abusive homes, and still others are abandoned by their parents who, given the country’s unemployment rate of 75 percent, cannot afford to care for them.
With so many children pushed to the streets, it didn’t take the 12-year-old Chege long to find other opportunities to help. Her second encounter with street children came one morning while walking home alone from church. Two young girls – “though you wouldn’t have known that they were girls from their appearance” – were fighting over a bag of food. On further examination, Chege discovered that the girls were fighting over a bag of orange peels from the garbage.
She became preoccupied with helping these children. She pretended to sleep during dinnertime so she could give them her meals. More and more of them flocked to her for food. She made friends with them and learned their distinctive language, Street Sheng.
Chege was soon overcome by a desire to understand these children and what had driven them onto the streets. She gained their trust, feeding and nursing them in secret, afraid of what her mother would say if she found out.
Chege’s help went on for years, unnoticed by her mother — a single mother with eight children — until the day Chege gave away all of her clothing.
After completing her public school education in Nairobi, Chege traveled to the United States in 1998 to obtain her bachelor’s degree in guidance and counseling. In 2000, she met her husband, Dr. Allen McGaughey. A year later, the couple started the Watoto Village project. (Watoto means children in Swahili.) Today, Chege is the executive director of Watoto Village, a nonprofit organization that provides homes, schooling, health care and, most importantly, love, to the orphaned street children of Nairobi.
There are now three Watoto Village homes in Kenya, which house up to eight children at a time and are headed by “parental” mentors. These “aunties” and “uncles” provide the children with stable parents often for the first time in their lives.
“We are not so much an organization as we are a group of coordinated families,” Chege said.
The process of bringing a child into a Watoto Village home is a gradual one. The children, who live on sidewalks, at dumpsites, and in sewers, are often afflicted with festering wounds and disease, yet never let on that they are in pain.
“It’s nice for me to see them cry,” said Chege. “I know that sounds strange, but initially, they don’t cry at all, and you know that they are filled with such incredible physical and emotional pain that it has to come out.
“Eventually, as we work with them, the feelings start coming back to them and they begin to feel and act human again.”
For the first six months, Chege’s team begins by building relationships and gaining the trust of the children. Watoto Village workers attempt to get them off any drugs they are using – sniffing glue is the high of choice – and interested in an education. A day-to-day program of street seminars teaches them about safe sexual practices, health and personal hygiene.
Through the outreach efforts of the Watoto Village workers, some children agree to stop sniffing glue and express a desire to go to school. They are then brought into the family environment of the Watoto Village homes.
There, the children face an entirely new set of challenges. “These are children who have never before brushed their teeth or held a pen in their hand,” said Chege. “It can take weeks to get all of the dirt off of them.”
“They are borrowing your hope, borrowing your love and borrowing your courage,” she said.
Currently, 17 children are participating in the program. They range in age from infants to young people in their 20s. The organization’s goals include building more homes to house more of the forgotten children.
“When you get a chance to help — help,” Chege said. “Because sometimes it means life.”