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Carnival! Nairobi. Street kids organise Kenya’s first carnival, to invert the order of things

Inverted. This is the best way to describe Carnival! Nairobi, a project intended to give a chance to the street kids of Nairobi in Kenya, upsetting the order of things.

The house is run-down and the garden is filled with burning rubbish. There are shacks around the buildings in front of us, and next to me there is group of 35 boys and girls who live on the streets. I went to visit them in order to involve them in a crazy idea.
Create a new path, together.

Read all the articles on the Carnival! Nairobi project

The girls always strike me the most, because they’re young and they almost always carry a child in their arms. Everyone treats them badly, they want favours, they speak to them showing no respect. And they answer back. “The street girls of Nairobi have to become tough, this is how they survive.” This is one of the lessons I learned here in Nairobi.
The girls respond to the shoves and the defiant looks that strike them, but their face is proud, they look right back at them, this is how they show their will to fight back.

le ragazze di kivuli, nairobi, kenya
A group of girls who took part in the Ciak! Kibera movie © Vince Cammarata/Fosphoro

One of the girls sees me and recognises me immediately. I see her and recognise her too, she runs towards me and embraces me. I’ve known her for about two years, since we opened the new shelter, she was part of the first group of boys and girls we helped, she stayed for a couple of months but went running back to her life on the streets. Why did she do it? I have no idea.

Once again I have to take a step back and accept I can’t understand, I can’t justify her choice. I put my judgement aside when I met her, as well as the question that often crossed my mind, “Why didn’t you stay with us?” I just want to smile at her today, hug her and be happy to see her again. As if she was a long lost friend.

I look towards a baby who is being held by one of the girls. She is six months old, with a serious face that only relaxes when her eyes meet someone else’s. She is held by everyone, in turns, and in front of her even the one with a defiant look acts lovingly, covering her with a blanket, making her laugh. What is that baby’s destiny? What is she doing there? What does the future hold for her? What choices will she make?

bambini nairobi cherimus
The first workshop created by Cherimus in the first shelter in Ndugu Mdogo, Kiberia, Nairobi (2014)

We have supported the studies of so many children we met here in the streets of Nairobi. So many boys and girls have left the streets and decided to go back to school.

Helping children has become almost easy: we know them now, we know what they’re looking for, we know how to persuade them to stay and find a different path from the one they were walking on. Only the most difficult cases run away and return to a dark and hopeless past. Some of those who run away try to come back to us, asking for a second chance, and we try again in the hopes that the child is strong and determined enough to not give up. But at times the decision is too big for a child to make.

What about older people? Those in their twenties and thirties who look like they are in their fifties, what should we do with them?

The six-month old baby’s mother asks us to help her bring her daughter to her grandmother, in the village: “People shout here, she can’t even sleep.” This young woman is right. The solution is right there: family.

Family should always be a starting point

This is what we’re trying to do with kids, we try to contact their family, we’re willing to look for a relative even if he’s in some remote area of Kenya, to give back the roots these children lost – tell me, where can you go if you don’t even know where you came from.

That is a new starting point: if we manage to reach the family the children will be five instead of one, if we support the families we will prevent the younger brothers of the child we helped at our centre from living in the streets, and slowly but surely we will break the chains that drags children towards the streets.

bambini nairobi
The children at Ndugu Mdogo during the first workshop of 2014 © Cherimus

This is our dream. Does it work?
Maybe, every family is a risk: every family is different and the challenges they have to face are many. First we must understand them, then think of a solution, take action, make the wrong choice, try again and never give up. For years.

When I think of all the children we took in, I think that the centres were never the real solution, just a temporary alternative to what every child should have: the love that comes from a strong and lasting bond, like the one formed with a parent or a relative.

Do the kids I met today have a strong and lasting bond they can rely on? I have been thinking about them for a long time, I’d like for us to think of a way out for them too, I’d like for them to believe there is another world.

Let’s try to put ourselves in their shoes… I don’t know if I’d believe in something different from what I have experienced in so many years on these dangerous and dirty streets. As we’re escorting the young mother to the bus that will take her and her child to the village she comes from, I really hope she decides to stay there too. I hope she doesn’t come back to a dreadful life like the one at the run-down shack surrounded by rubbish, that she decides to stay in the village with her family.
Maybe the village is a solution to leave a city like Nairobi behind, a city that takes everything from you, without giving even an illusion of hope.

ciak kibera, cherimus, amani, kenya
A group of children playing near the border of Kiberia © Vince Cammarata/Fosphoro

Why was I there today? Carnival! Nairobi

Today I visited this group of boys and girls because we’re developing a crazy idea, and we would like to involve groups of kids like the one we met this morning in this new adventure.

The people at our NGO, Amani, get crazy ideas especially when we collaborate with our friends called Cherimus.
Cherimus means “we want”, “we wish for” in Sardinian, and maybe this is why we get carried away by our dreams with them.
This time the (crazy) dream is to give life to the first Kenyan carnival. The name of the project is Carnival! Nairobi. And we want to accomplish it with the kids who live on the streets.

Carnival! Nairobi
Luna Park Party, Marco Colombaioni and Derek MF Di Fabio. 2010, Perdaxius © Cherimus

Why them? Honestly it would have been much easier to organise a pretty masked carnival with the kids who live in our centres, involving the neighbourhood schools, inviting people to take part in a beautiful parade and have fun.
But that’s not it, we want those kids, not others.
They must lead the parade.

We want to give them a chance to invert the order of things, destroy the rules dictated by this society, rules that drives these boys and girls into a corner and calls them “animals”. We want to give life to chaos in order to radically change an incorrect order and create a new one, to symbolically reinvent ourselves to then fall back in the lines of our new lives, and see what happens next.
This is the idea behind the carnival, and we would like the kids who live on the streets of Nairobi to create a totally Kenyan carnival.

This is the reason why we met them this morning. This is why the artists from Cherimus have been here for the last few days and since this idea was once again born in collaboration with the Koinonia Community, I’m sure we will create something marvellous.

Who knows, maybe wearing masks that show something more about ourselves will help us understand each other more deeply. This will be a new starting point: creating new initiatives, giving birth to new ideas (maybe even crazier than this one), build a new path. Of true change.
This is what all of us “cherimus”.

Carnival! Nairobi is an international cooperation project that intends to create a wonderful masked parade in the streets of Nairobi with street children and former street children.
Financed by the Sardegna Region, created by Cherimus in collaboration with Amani, Koinonia Community, Teatro di Sardegna, the Sardinian cities of Perdaxius and Narcao.

Translated by

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