I racconti del Premio Energheia Africa Teller

The life of a street boy_Philip Mushiba Mung’ao

kizito10_Africa Teller 2000.

I would not have become a street boy if misfortune had not befallen

my family. By the time I was born, my father had long abandoned our

family and disappeared, never to be seen again. My father, Kamau,

had lived with my mother, my three sisters and four brothers happily

in Madaraka estate, a middle-class estate in Nairobi during his hey

days. He was, then, a messenger with a foreign bank and his salary

those years, was adequate. My family members lacked nothing, they

enjoyed at least three meals a day, had a comfortable house and

dressed fashionably. My mother ran a retail shop near our house.

My brothers and sisters went to a nearby school and were picked and

dropped home by the school bus everyday.

But as fate would have it, my dad was later retrenched in what the

bank said was a restructuring exercise. He was paid all his dues plus

a generous bonus for his many years of service. With all this money

our lifestyle remained the same with the hope that our dad would get

another job soon. Months turned into years and no jobs were forth

coming. As father’s finances dwindled my mother’s retail shop

slowly turned into empty shelves. My family lost friends and even at

school, my sisters and brothers began to get regular harassment from

the teachers over non-payment of fees. My father became hostile,

first towards my mother, then towards the children.

He became rare at home and spent most of his time indulging in

excessive drinking of local brews. He lost weight and shape, wore

rags and disappeared altogether, leaving my mother alone

with the children.

My mother, Njeri, whose earlier photographs prove that she was a

beauty, became worn out. Hitherto used to being provided for, she

now had to toil to maintain the family despite being heavy with me in

her womb. On the advice of our aunt, she moved to a shack in

Mathare, where she tried to fit in easily, our household goods having

been sold by dad and some impounded by the landlord over nonpayment

of house rent.

My mother tried selling fish, then sukuma wiki (kale) but she lacked

the capital to sustain the business and the family faced starvation and

hunger each passing day. Many are times when our shack got swept

off by the Nairobi river flood waters. The room was always dump,

leaked and hundreds of residents had to share the few filthy pit

latrines nearby. There were countless police raids where we lived in

pursuit of thugs and whenever they entered and left a house,

everything was left in chaos. The two hundred and fifty Kenya

shillings demanded as house rent was not always available and my

mother had to plead with the landlord after being threatened with

eviction many times.

Ngotho, my elder brother, joined the slum peer group and was rarely

seen home. Ciiku my elder sister, got married to a tout in a nearby

slum neighbourhood. It was at this time and in the middle of crisis

that I was born and condemned to a life of poverty, struggle and


I struggled with my mother’s emaciated breasts in the hope of getting

some milk. I fought with diseases attributed to malnourishment and

unhygienic surroundings endlessly, and competed for attention and

food with my siblings each day. My mother resorted to brewing illicit

beer in Mathare valley and when the law enforcement offers became

too hot to handle, she tried illegal hawking but still found herself

being harassed by city council askaris more often than not. At times,

she would spend her meagre earnings bribing policemen to buy her

freedom after being arrested and most of her earnings from hawking

ended up with the city council askaris for the same purpose.

My mother became so desperate, she began to offer her body to any

man for twenty shillings to get money to buy me something to eat.

My brothers and sisters, who at times accompanied my mother to the

city centre on a begging mission as she hawked, soon learnt the

secrets of street life and disappeared, occasionally coming home with

some money for my sickly mother and the malnourished me, Kuria.

My mother’s health improved slightly when my brother Ngugi, the

third born, got a casual job in a construction company. He 1oved my

mother so much and made sure he handed over all his earnings to her.

At last, we could eat a meal a day.

By the time I was five, I was already aspiring to join the street

because of stories recounted by my brothers and sisters. But being the

last born, my mother kept me under tight control and even enrolled

me in a nearby school where I stayed for two years. But lack of

books, fees, uniform and hunger made me hate school altogether. I

would help mother to hawk groundnuts before I graduated into

hawking paper bags outside supermarkets. It was at this time that I

was introduced to drugs by my peers and soon headed for the streets

of Nairobi.

I was introduced to street life by my friend Njoroge. Njoroge joined

the streets to escape the wrath of his aunt who took him up after his

parents died in road accident with the promise of educating him. But

as soon as the family land was entrusted to her, she became hostile

and resorted to physically abusing Njoroge, leaving him with several

scars as a result of wild beatings.

For a start, street life was tough, very tough. We slept on pavements

on cartons and newspapers with nothing to cover ourselves during dry

and wet nights. We had to endure the wrath of policemen on patrol

and watchmen, who demanded bribes to let us have some peace on

the pavements. Then there were the mean and cruel members of the

public who always treated us like criminals.

Street boys operated in gangs and I got initiated into the “ninja” gang.

The initiation involved being abandoned by the reliable friends to the

mercy of gang members who induce a fight and only one’s strength

assured him of a rank in the gang. It was not for long before my body

was full of scars from injuries received during gang fights and

beatings from the policemen, watchmen and the public.

After a year on the streets, I had become an expert street survivor. I

graduated from begging, using human faeces wrapped in a polythene

bag as a weapon to pick-pocketing and bag snatching. I then became a

“base commander” in charge of an operation area and a squad of

accomplices. My “base” was Wakulima market in the city centre and

the surrounding areas. This was a common shopping centre for

tourists. As a base commander, my duties revolved around coordinating

the trailing of our victims and advising on the appropriate

strategy to apply as circumstances dictated. Our main targets were

tourists. The strategies ranged from simply grabbing an item and

dashing off closely trailed by accomplices so that if it drops, the others

pick and proceed on; one person knocking off the item to a readily

waiting accomplice who picks it and takes off; stripping a lady victim,

who, as she concentrates on covering herself gives us ample time to

grab, especially chains or in a sophisticated manner, snatching an item

just as one crosses the street ahead of an on-coming vehicle.

One memorable afternoon, in the company of Njoroge and two other

friends, we applied the stripping strategy on a lady tourist and I

snatched a golden chain then took off with my accomplices and the

public in hot pursuit. We had trailed the lady right from the Grand

Regency Hotel area. The chase ended at the Globe Cinema roundabout

where, in a desperate bid to cross the road, I was hit by a

Nissan car which threw me off the road, knocking myself against a

lamp-post. The chain fell off and as Njoroge grabbed it to take off, we

had been concerned. We were rounded up; I thank God it was the

policemen as members of the public would easily have lynched us.

The tourist’s plea to the policemen to let us go fell on deaf ears and in

spite of my injuries, I was dragged along mercilessly bleeding

profusely to a police land rover and we were driven to a remand home

in lower Kabete.

Life was horrible in the remand home where we were denied basic

facilities like blankets and were kept in the same cells with adult

criminals. The adults continuously coached us how to cheat the

magistrate if taken to court. After nine horrible months of waiting in

the remand home, we were set to be admitted to approved schools

when, one morning, we were called to the office to meet two ladies

whom I later learnt were social workers. They asked us a lot of

questions ranging from schooling, home background, street life and

the best part of it was if we were willing to go back to school. My

colleagues and I agreed just to get out of the remand home then find

our way back into the streets again.

A week after this encounter, we were driven in the company of social

workers to a centre in Kariobangi. I later learnt that this was a drop-in

centre and would be our new home. Miss Anjela, one of the social

workers introduced us to Joshua, our new custodian. We joined other

boys of our age-group in the centre.

The old members of the drop-in were very welcoming, thanks to

Joshua’s efforts. Each one of the boys wanted to talk to us and help us.

They told us what went on in the centre. Every boy had his bed and a

box on it. We were provided with these things that evening by Joshua,

who stays in the parish house that also houses the priest- in charge of

St. Martin’s Catholic Church. When supper time reached, we were

given very clean plates, a spoon and knife. We were led into the dining

room by Joshua who had been joined by Brother Tom. Joshua spoke

and the group did some signs and said things we could not understand

– the four of us who were new. It was later explained to us to be the

sign of the cross and the prayer before meals.

I liked the food and when I looked at Njoroge who sat opposite me at

the table, he smiled and showed me a raised thumb – meaning that things

were also good to him. After supper we all stood up, and said a prayer.

Brother Tom then announced that we were all going to watch a video

since it was on Sunday night. In the video room, I moved to where

Njoroge, my long time friend was seated.

“I like the place, do you?” I asked him in whispers “I do”, he said, but

added quickly “glue, do you have any with you?”

“No” I dropped the bottle at the gate out of fear” I whispered back.

“I will die”, he said.

“Why? Because of glue?” I enquired.

“Yes”, he replied touching his head “I am even feeling headache”.

“They will give you medicine for that” I answered back.

He kept quiet, his attention was diverted to the video. It was showing

the “Gods must be crazy,” a film we were fond of watching at

twilight hotel in River road during our days on the streets.

That night, I could hardly sleep. I was lying in bed on a new mattress,

clean sheets with Njoroge on the upper deck. It was unbelievable. I

missed the cold nights at the remand home and in the streets, and

people here were so orderly.

The following morning, we woke up early at 7.00 a.m. washed

ourselves and rushed to the church for morning mass. We then came

for breakfast and we were taken to class at 8.00 a.m., by Brother Tom.

The old boys went to another class with Joshua.

Brother Tom was pleased to hear that all of us, Njoroge, Osore, Sheyi

and myself had been to school and knew basic literacy and numeracy.

He was especially pleased with Osore, who could speak good English

and had been our teacher on the streets whenever we felt bored. He

promised us that if we behaved well and showed interest in class

work, he would promote us to go to school straight away.

After three months, we had caught up with the centre’s rules without

many hitches. We had resolved to be good boys and be taken out to

another school where we hoped to meet other boys who could

perhaps have some glue. The four of us had lost hope especially one

Saturday afternoon, when Njoroge had sneaked in some glue after

going to shop with Brother Tom in Buruburu. The other boys had

suspected, checked Njoroge’s box when he went to the toilet and

reported to Brother Tom who confiscated the “cargo”.

A week before being taken to school, Miss Anjela came to the drop-in

centre several times. Sometimes, she listened to us converse freely,

came to class and asked us questions and shared meals with us.

Nobody among us knew her intentions until I overhead her

conversing with Joshua.

“Madam, your boys are so good, take them to Ruai,” he had started.

“Is it?” she enquired,

“Yes, surprising, the four who came recently are very outstanding.

They have virtually reformed and are good in class too” he explained.

“What about the seven?” she asked referring to the old boys we had

found there.

“Slow learners you could take Eliya, Mutua and Kipsang: The rest we

shall recommend later”, Joshua replied.

“Let us go to my office,” he had told her.

That evening, Brother Tom, Joshua and Father Kaiser came to the

dining hall where Brother Tom informed us that the seven of us

would be leaving the centre for Ruai where we would be enrolled in a

formal school. He also announced that the following day, Miss Anjela

would bring more boys to the centre to replace us.

We were so overjoyed that we conversed in whispers until late in the

night. At midmorning the following day, the Brother’s vehicle came

for us. We waved goodbye to Father Kaiser, Joshua, our four

remaining colleagues and five others who had just arrived with Miss

Anjela as the vehicle turned at the gate and sped off.

We reached Ruai later that evening. I was eleven years then. We

found so many boys, more than two hundred aged between six and

seventeen years. I later learnt that most of them came from children’s

remand homes scattered all over Nairobi.

Only Njoroge and I were taken to stay in St. Kizito dormitory. The

rest joined the other three dormitories. Brother Ayier, the Head of the

institution met us the following morning and interviewed us for

admission to our respective classes. I passed the interview for class

two and got admission. Osore went to class four while Njoroge and

the rest joined class one.

A new life had begun, a life of class work, school rules, prayers in the

morning, evening, before and after meals, on Saturdays, Sundays;

virtually at all times. School ran from Monday to Friday, 8.00 a.m. –

5.00 p.m. Saturday was a washing and recreation day. Sunday

morning was prayer time. The afternoon was for recreation.

The centre was complete with recreational facilities. There was video,

television and balls for games. Our parents and guardians who had

been re-united with us through the efforts of social workers visited us

during the first Saturday of the month or during parents’ meetings.

After only three weeks, I had made enough friends. I re-acquainted

with “Yellowman” a former street boy who had been the “base

commander” of the Hilton Hotel area and its surroundings during our

street life days. He had transformed from “Yellowman” to sanitary

prefect whose dream now was to join Strarehe Boys’ Centre after

primary education and later on, hoped to study law at the university.

I met the smartest boy in the school, Wariua, by then nicknamed

“minister” although he aspired to become a Diplomat. He was lucky

to join a secondary school in Nyeri. I also met Mulandi and

Kamusidi, the “pastors” who were aspiring to become priests;

Kisanjana the entertainer; Kirefu, the athlete; Kabaloko, the aspiring

chauffeur and “teacher” Abel. Everybody here had a dream career and

our teachers encouraged us to strive towards achieving them.

Everybody loved us right from “ndahwo” the watchman, Mkulima

the groundsman, to “mathe” the cook. I liked my class teacher,

madam Bino. She was so kind and bought us bananas. She also taught

us very well and she made me the class prefect after one term.

We all loved sister Rachael, the school nurse. She hated anybody who

tried to hurt the boys. She led us in the liturgy group and I joined the

prayer group on her insistence. We prayed for so many people, the

donors, brothers, tribal clash victims and our school and parents.

I liked games. I joined the Junior football team in class four and

became the captain, rising until I became the school head boy in

standard eight. We defeated the so called “normal” neighbouring

schools in many games and sports, music and drama. At one time,

Mohi, “the Poet,” was declared the best in the country.

Father Joseph brought us meat quite often. Other neighbours brought

us clothes, fruits, books and many other things. I wondered why

everybody loved us here and hated us so much on the streets. Kenya

Airways always gave us old uniforms every year. As soon as any

supplies arrived, Brother Chris, the boarding master would ring the bell

and we would all line up to share whatever had been brought for us.

We learnt so many songs and poems to sing and recite to our visitors

whenever they came. All these helped in making us better people.

I did my Kenya certificate of primary education last year and being

the bright boy that I have always been, I hope to be the best pupil and

merit a scholarship for admission to an American school which one of

our donors has promised. My school-mate Otieno, went last year after

scoring five hundred and eighty marks in the Kenya certificate of

primary education.

If I go to America, I hope to contact some of the tourist friends I met

at Ruai. I especially look forward to meeting Miss Hicks, the high

school teacher in Minnesota. I pray that I will be able to study Law so

that I can come back home and relentlessly fight for the rights of the

street children and other marginalised groups.