Isolated about 430km west of Nairobi along a two-lane highway that bridges the countries of Kenya and Uganda lies the small, dusty border town of Busia, Kenya. Busia is a vital center for trade across the region, supporting a booming agricultural market. Crossing the border into Kenya, the smell of exhaust, dust and trash seem to constantly fight for dominance, while sounds of heavy truck transmissions revving and honking horns can be heard in every direction. Transport trucks, carrying cattle, fresh produce, petrol and other goods wall in the highway on either side, some waiting days to cross. In between the trucks, people pack in tightly, carrying produce, livestock, or building materials, while riding on motorcycles, bicycles or walking on foot. Maneuvering down the road is like rafting down a well-orchestrated river of chaos. Food vendors sell fruit, wares and meat on a stick, while prostitutes laugh with drivers by their open windows. Sex workers frequently frisk the town, searching for prosperous businessmen and restless truck drivers on their way to and from West and Central Africa, which has caused the HIV and AIDS rates in Busia to climb 6.8% above the national average. The small, bare feet of children run in and out of traffic, some children carry sacks of grain, while others beg by the open windows of tour busses. These children are part of Busia’s large population of street children and each have a unique story. Some come from families where extreme poverty was a desperate reality, their caregivers unable to provide for their most basic, physical needs. Others are forced out when a parent remarries, while still others leave home out of fear of punishment for committing a crime or doing poorly in school. Overall, most experience a wide range of in-home abuses and neglect.
The United Nations has defined the term “Street Child” as “Any girl or boy who has not reached adulthood, for whom the street has become her or his habitual abode and/or sources of livelihood, and who is inadequately protected, supervised or directed by responsible adults.” IRIN news reports that there are approximately 250,000-300,000 children living and working on the streets in Kenya, with more than 60,000 of them in Nairobi. Life on the streets exposes these children to a world of drug addiction, sexual abuse, illness, exploitation, criminal activity, and violence by police and criminal gangs. The odds are stacked against these children as they are exposed to the elements, have unreliable access to food and have no access to education or quality medical services.
When children run away from their homes, the small villages around them offer very little in terms of health and safety. This leads many of them to the bustling town of Busia to work odd jobs like washing cars, collecting garbage and moving goods. When they aren’t working, most will beg in the common areas. In order to cope with hunger, cold and loneliness, kids join with other runaways for support. Many of these street groups are controlled by "street men" who were once street kids themselves. These street men ultimately gain control over the children by getting them addicted to paint thinner or "tina" by inhaling (huffing) it. Many of the children walk around with rags, plastic bottles and cigarette filters soaked with paint thinner under their noses. The street men exploit the children by having them do a number of illegal acts including selling drugs, doing odd jobs and siphoning gas from transport trucks. The street men serve as middlemen, collecting money for the children’s efforts. Some of the street men often provide the children a safe place to sleep, tina and some semblance of a caring relationship.
Police continually raid the children’s sleeping areas, keeping them moving to different sides of the border each night. This boy was badly beaten by police as they cleared the children from under a veranda where they slept.
Evans, a 12-year-old Kenyan boy, felt that he had no choice but to run away from home when he was only ten. Life at home had become unbearable. Evans said, “My parents divorced and my Mother remarried a drunkard man. He did not like me so he would beat me whenever he came home in the evenings. The pain was too much, so I left.” Evans’ unfortunate story is a common theme for many children in Africa. Some stepfathers and stepmothers perceive children from previous marriages as a threat, so they sometimes abuse the children until they leave. This is also known as the "Cinderella Effect." Each time Evans would think back on his home, he would place a rag soaked with tina to his nose and inhale, as if to numb the painful memories of his past. When Evans first arrived in Busia, frightened and homeless, he found a group of boys that would take him in.
One of the boys who took Evans in was Dusty, a 19 year old, who has lived on the streets of Busia for many years. Dusty said, "Joining the street is at your own choice. If you don’t join them, they will take any food or money you have by beating you...if you join them, you are forced to do tina and steal gasoline from the [transport] trucks.” Dusty left home to live with his grandmother because his single mother couldn’t afford to feed or educate him and his 5 siblings. At the same time, he began arguing with his older brother, who broke Dusty’s hand in a fight. When his grandmother died, he was too scared of his brother to return home, so he went to live on the streets. It was there that he gained the trust of a street man who brought him into his home and then had him sell tina.
Since the children are more profitable beggars than the street men, they rely heavily on the children for their financial security. However, street men aren't the only ones who exploit these children. Dusty says the street girls and boys are sometimes used for sex, making 50-100 shillings ($.50-$1.00), much of that coming from truck drivers. Some drivers offer them free rides to places, but only abuse them, dropping them off on the side of the road afterwards. This sadly was the case for two of Dusty’s friends. When asked about his greatest fears on the street, Dusty says that he is most scared of sleeping in the veranda, biting flies and skin diseases.
Education is something that all the street children desire, and each have dreams for the future. Dusty wants to become a mechanic, Benjamin, a transport driver and Evans a pastor. One of the young boys, Joshua, 16, who has been on the street since he was 11, says, "I want a safe place to stay and I want to go to school." The children want to live carefree again. While playing soccer on a dusty field, they light up and their innocence starts to peek through their emotional scars. For a brief moment there’s no tina, there are no street men, there's no hunger and no fight for survival. There are only sounds of laughter, playing and being a kid again, things that have become almost foreign to them.
If conditions stay the same for these children, then they too will become street men, ensuring that the cycle of abuse and exploitation clutches the next generation of street children.
Kenya Information Guide - Kenya Information Guide