From Shropshire to Swahili
Going to Mombasa (Kenya) and working on the street kids project had been at the back of my mind for at least 5 years…last June I just decided to book it…6 months later I reached steamy hot Africa, not knowing a word of Swahili and not really knowing what was about to take hold of me.
So much generosity
I arrived in January 2014 but I had spent the previous six months fundraising and asking companies to donate goods for me to take that I knew would benefit the boys and the project as a whole.
Shrewsbury Town Football Club were fantastic and donated 50 football shirts of various sizes, Staples donated lots of chalk to allow me to teach the children using the blackboards, Wisdom sent me a whole bag of toothbrushes, Sainsbury’s donated toothpaste as well as soaps and a local shop in Shrewsbury spent time making up goody bags full of sweets.
Having read lots about the project before my departure and speaking to other ex-volunteers, I thought I was pretty much prepared for what I was about to see and feel. I was wrong.
A warm welcome
What I didn’t bank on was the warmth (not least arriving at 4.00am in 27degree heat). The warm welcome I received from the moment I touched down at Moi International Airport could not go unnoticed.
Despite arriving in the middle of the night, a driver had been arranged for me to be collected and taken to the volunteer house, about 20mins drive away.
There I was greeted firstly by the house security guard, and also Irene. Irene is housekeeper at the volunteer house, and soon felt more like a long lost friend.
I was told lots more about the project and the local area by Irene, and Sister Emma (African Catholic Nun and Director of the Project).
Sister Emma came to meet me to discuss my role and give me lots of background information about the boys I would be working with, and also the project itself.
Overview of the project
There are two elements to the project – The rescue centre and the school.
The rescue centre at Mikindani is a ‘drop in’ centre for children (aged 5-17) who are “fresh’ from the dangerous streets of Mombasa.
Unfortunately, the children rescued have had no shelter, are hungry, and many are addicted to glue sniffing as a way of masking hunger pains. Here they are treated, guided and counselled to help them settle down.
After a given period of time, children who have been assessed by the social workers and are seen to have settled down, are either re-united with their families at their request (that is if their homes have been located) or transferred to the school at Kikambala to allow more time for family tracing.
The children transferred to Kikambala are given formal education as well as continuous guidance and counselling as a major part of their rehabilitation program.
“It was clear to see that there was a strong bond between these boys.”
The rescue centre can be home for up to 12 boys at any one time. There is one Sister and several House Fathers which help run it, and have their own individual roles.
The House Father in charge of the actual ‘street work’ or rescuing the children to use another term was Father Simon.
He has worked for the project for many years, and goes out once or twice a week to walk the streets of Mombasa searching for those boys who have found themselves living there.
The boys are rescued from the streets and taken to the centre where they have their own bed. They are often very hungry, thirsty and tired when they first arrive, and many are addicted to glue sniffing mostly used to numb the physical pain of hunger, and the mental pain they endure from being on the streets
On my arrival, the rescue centre was full! I met the most wonderful 12 boys (aged 9-14), who had stayed at the centre for the last year and were to begin formal schooling imminently.
It was clear to see that there was a strong bond between these boys who had lived together as brothers for many months.
“They constantly threw their arms around me”
Numbing the pain
The boys all had individual stories as to how they had ended up on the streets of Mombasa – all of which were equally difficult to listen to.
One tiny boy (9 years old but looked 6), had walked 7 miles without any belongings or shoes on his feet to the nearest police station where he declared “I want to wear a school uniform”…he wanted to escape his mother who sadly, had serious issues with alcohol.
Another boy, who was 14 years old, had found himself on the streets due to escaping a violent stepfather. One particularly sad story was that of one of the older boys.
He had fallen victim to a local gang and was found by project staff in a pool of blood having had his genitals mutilated by a machete. There were so many other stories, all as sad as the last.
Listening to their stories, it was hard to believe from looking at them, that they had ever known such misery. They were the most smiley, welcoming, tactile group of children I had ever met….yet they had barely had anything to call their own.
They constantly threw their arms around me, carried my bag for me and wanted to share the only food they had in the world with me – rice and beans.
Sometimes, the anger, sorrow and frustration came through in the form of fighting. And just occasionally I caught the sadness in the boy’s eyes as they had quiet moments of reflection.
There were days where the boys were moody and argumentative (a by-product of knowing such pain, but also being a teenage probably!).
These moments as far as I could tell, were few and far between but I could completely understand why they happened.
“They were so eager to learn, loved being set exams and always asked for more work….”
Learning life skills
Once settled, they are encouraged to get into a daily routine. The boys have to be taught how and when to wash themselves as well as their clothes and bedding – some have not been parented for years.
They are expected to cook for themselves, undertaking every task from collecting water from the well, to lighting the charcoal stove, to actually cooking the rice and beans.
It was an eye-opener to see such young boys (some as young as 7) using sharp knives and lighting fires – but to them it was all in a day’s work.
It was clear to see these boys had learned so much from the project staff – from the English language to everyday life skills such as washing clothes using a bar of soap and a stone on the back yard floor!
The project and rescue centre rely solely on donations, and volunteers. I was there to teach the boys everything from English and maths, to science and geography.
They were so eager to learn, loved being set exams and always asked for more work….such a contrast from a lot of children back in Britain!
They were immensely proud to show off their new school uniforms a previous volunteer had bought for them…you would have thought someone had given them the whole world from the smiles on their faces.
“When the children are ready to begin their education, they move on to board at the project”
The second element of the project is school. When the children are ready to begin their education, they move on to board at school.
It is a school that is a couple of hours up the coast, which has been built up to the current size over the last 12 or so years and now educates around 100 students. They have all followed the journey from living on the streets to staying at the rescue centre and then on to the school itself.
The school is self-sufficient, has its own water tanks, wells, chickens, cows, maize plantations and dormitory. There are several classrooms and more that are in the process of being built – though funding has currently dried up and they can’t be completed until more money is found.
From the very first visit, it was clear to see how much work, time and effort had been put in by Sister Emma and all the staff at the project. It was an impressive place – full of the most welcoming children. I found it hard to believe every one of them had been living on the streets previously.
Now they were excelling in class, passing exams and had dreams for their futures…dreams a million miles away from glue sniffing, and the dangerous street life.
Having settled the 12 boys safely into the school, my work back at the rescue centre and on the streets of Mombasa continued. The centre was now empty so we had to go about filling it once more!
Shocking reality of the streets
The first street kids walk I did with Father Simon was truly shocking. I met him in the crazy centre of Mombasa and followed him in the searing heat, for about 10 minutes before we came to a clearing.
We immediately found 3 boys sitting on cardboard – they had rags for clothes, were filthy dirty from the dust everywhere and the smallest boy (who looked about 7) was playing with a razor blade.
Father Simon spoke to them in Swahili, informing them about the centre and then translated back to me that they wanted to come with us. At this point, all we knew was that the oldest boy had found himself on the streets after a house fire had killed both his parents.
The youngest immediately saw my bottle of fresh water, and gestured for me to hand it to him…he barely managed to get the word ‘water’ out…his throat was obviously so dry he couldn’t speak.
I have never seen water disappear so quickly. It was so sad. A bottle of water cost about 20 shillings (7 UK pence)…he didn’t even have that to his name.
None of the boys had shoes on their feet and I worried about how we would get them back to the rescue centre without injuries. The pavements are so dangerous with potholes and sharp rocks lying around everywhere and I had broken my toe the previous week on one!
I couldn’t bear to see these 3 nomads following us like sheep over the scorching hot pavements. The great thing was they made it back to the rescue centre safely.
It was anyone’s guess as to whether they would stay or not, as the temptation of running back to what they know as ‘normality’ is huge.
I did a couple of further street walks with Father Simon over the 5 weeks I was there. He took me to the rather more ‘dingy’ areas of Mombasa.
I was allowed no belongings with me – no bag, no camera, no jewellery…and when we got there I could see why. A few streets away from the shops of the city centre, you turn a corner and are faced with the poorest of poor people I have ever seen.
There were about 700 people living in squalor, taking shelter in metal shacks, broken glass everywhere and many were hooked on glue sniffing.
The glue is a dirty yellow colour, and is put inside a plastic bottle which has been cut in half. This is then held up to their nose / mouth without ever being moved away. They were high as kites, barely able to open their eyes. This is how they numbed not just hunger pain, but the pain of everyday life.
As I looked around, I could hardly take in the sights before my eyes…babies of 2 years old running around with nothing on, using a potty just inches from broken glass.
I waded through sludgy litter which included broken glue bottles, watched children of all ages play fighting, saw chickens doing their business here there and everywhere, and witnessed grown adults scavenging through bins of leftovers as they were so hungry but had no food.
This is what hides in the back streets of Mombasa – convenient for all to ignore. How can this be in 2014?
“As I looked around, I could hardly take in the sights before my eyes…”
Making a difference
All in all, during my time in Mombasa I rescued 10 boys from the streets – everyday it was a lottery if they would stay at the rescue centre or run back to the ‘safe familiarity’ of the streets.
It was gut wrenching when that happened but in some cases, inevitable.
The money I fundraised before I went (along with donations from generous friends and strangers) made such a huge difference to the boys, and went such a long way in helping the project.
The simplest items of rice, and charcoal were bought in huge quantities meaning I could leave knowing they at least had the basics for a while yet. The project literally is ‘hand to mouth’ every day.
We take so much for granted in our daily lives here in Britain. We are a few thousand miles away from Mombasa but somehow it seems a whole other world completely.
My trip was a rollercoaster ride, but I like to think that during my time there I made a difference to the boys lives…I know they did to mine, and that is why I continue to support the project.
How you can help
The street kid’s project is literally desperate for volunteers.
If you are interested in doing some basic teaching with the most wonderful children, and working alongside the most brilliant people – this is the project for you!
You will work at the rescue centre in the mornings, and have the afternoons / weekends as free time.
You will not be disappointed….Kenya is an amazing country and you will make a real difference to the children.
There is lots of free time to go out and about exploring! Mombasa town is such a vibrant place – full of noises, smells and sights that will amaze you.
The transport system of tuk-tuks and matatus are so much fun! Apart from the main town, there also the ‘Old Town’, Fort Jesus and the Spice Market to visit!
I had time at weekends to visit both the north and south coast resorts of Mombasa – Diani beach on the south coast, is the most beautiful picture postcard place I have ever seen with its white sands, and crystal clear waters.
Camels being rode, and African fabrics being sold, are common sights here. Pirate’s beach on the north coast is very similar but a lot busier.
I took a 3 day safari at Tsavo East and West national parks – a lifetime dream come true. You can book this through a guide that Irene knows (just ask him to come to the volunteer house).
I saw the most wonderful wildlife up close and personal and stayed at beautiful lodges in the middle of the beautiful Kenyan landscape…I loved every minute of it and would tell anyone that this is a must when visiting!
Thank you so much for reading!