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A carnival of colours to walk in the shoes of those who dream of a home, to step out of the streets’ shadow

Behind every person there’s a story and there are feelings. An obvious yet complex fact we often forget when we come face to face with those who come last, those who have nothing. This is the story of how Nairobi’s street children subverted stereotypes by throwing a grand party.

When I received the phone call in which I was asked to follow the Carnival! Nairobi experience first-hand, my mind immediately went to last autumn, to the evening I spent at Barrio’s, a theatre in Milan’s Barona neighbourhood; and that meeting in front of coffee I had with Emiliana Sabiu and Carlo Spiga from the organisation Cherimus the following day. That evening, Cherimus and another NGO, called Amani, were presenting a short movie called Bisu Ndoto, two words from two different languages – respectively Sardinian and Swahili – but with the same meaning: “dream”.

Bisu Ndoto was born out of a project – Ciak! Kibera – which involved a group of artists filming a short musical film on the streets of one of the largest shanty towns in Sub-Saharan Africa, Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. Artists from Cherimus had worked with former street children living in halfway houses, educational, scholastic and professional centres managed by local operators thanks to the work carried out by Amani and the Koinonia Community (this story’s third protagonist). But the project I’m about to tell you about is definitely more ambitious: organising a carnival in Nairobi, the first ever in the city.

What it means to live on the streets

The carnival directly involved groups of children who still live on the streets, even though some of them have decided to enter the afore-mentioned centres in the meantime. “We were full of questions and doubts about what it would mean to work with street children, but the educators helped us every step of the way, making our project possible,” Saibu, the artist responsible for the Carnival! Nairobi project, recalls.

What does it mean to live on the streets? A question with no definitive answer, as sometimes there just isn’t one. In fact, living on the streets means many things.

For example, it means leaving your home because you don’t have a family who takes care of you. Maybe because of violence, maybe because of poverty, maybe due to a combination of the two. Sometimes it also means being forced to leave these homes.

It means relying on other children who live on the streets and considering them your “family”. It means having to come up with means and tools to be able to overcome the continuous necessity to fill the hours and stomach without being “eaten up” by thoughts and worries. This is why most of the street children decide to sniff glue and jet fuel to “silence” those voices and “confuse” the stomach, dissuading it from its continuous requests to be filled. “I sniff glue so that I don’t feel hungry,” is one of the most common explanations.

Living on the streets means fighting for survival every night, finding a safe place to sleep, an improvised shelter and avoiding getting involved in sudden altercations caused by a revenge or police raids, as the authorities want to show they’re doing something to solve this “problem”. Yes, because most of the community considers street children as chokora, trash that has to be removed every once in a while (or simply relocated) to give the city a cleaner image.

“Honestly, it would’ve 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 just have fun,” Chiara Avezzano, in charge of Amani’s projects, who has lived between Milan and Nairobi for many years, writes. “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 drive these boys and girls into a corner, labelling them as ‘animals’. We want to give life to chaos in order to radically invert a subverted order and create a new one”.

The carnival as a window onto hidden treasures

A similar approach to the one adopted by Okada Buluma, who coordinates Koinonia Community’s educational projects for children and young people, who defines the carnival as, “a window that allows the world and society to see these hidden treasures (the street children, editor’s note). When it comes to life on the streets, we often see the negative side alone – people living in miserable conditions. But by giving them a chance these people shine. These children manage to do things we can’t even imagine. The carnival makes us see this potential to its fullest”.

 

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The Carnival! Nairobi experience began in the south of Sardinia with art workshops in the towns of Narcao and Pedaxius, two small municipalities. Pedaxius, with its 1,400 inhabitants, is also Cherimus’ home. At the end of February, a group of artists, Matteo Rubbi, Derek MF Di Fabio, Fiammetta Caime and Emiliana Saibu, moved to Nairobi in order to bring their activities to Africa – in an artist residence called Darajart* –, which ended with the carnival on the 14th of April. A parade made up of carriages, masks, flags and music that animated the streets of the Riuta neighbourhood where the centre called Kivuli (which means “shelter”) is found. This is the most important one, the “capital” of the Koinonia association in Kenya. Those who took part in the carnival were mostly street children from the bases in the Kawangware and Mtindwa neighbourhoods and from the city of Ngong.

Giving the chance to choose

As I was saying, some of the children involved decided to abandon street life. The workshops took place in the context of a path drawn by social workers, Koinonia’s educators, every year for over two decades. A path aimed at giving a choice to children who have no choice. An action as simple as “drawing a dream”, one of the activities offered by Cherimus’ artists, becomes one of the few moments for these children to express themselves, for them to understand what they for the future. “This helps us especially in the context of some children’s rehabilitation process,” says Mary Osinde, one of the educators interviewed by Matteo Rubbi. “When we go out on the streets we meet these young boys. Over three months we try to create a bond: they know our names, we trace the houses from which they fled to meet their families before they enter our centres. Meanwhile, we’re with them, we do activities, eat and spend time together. They share their thoughts with us and sometimes they open up and start telling us about why they left home and ended up on the street”.

The dream of a home

The three bases involved in Carnival! Nairobi brought different but often common forms of expression. Every kid shared a common dream: a home. This dream is in their heads, and Saibu explains that this is why, “we didn’t develop it right away, we left it to incubate and started building it a few days before the carnival. Created in the respective bases as a prototype, the concept of home was then summarised in a project we created in Kivuli and mounted on a pick-up,” which was then placed at the centre of the parade, like a pulsating heart made of music and dance.

 

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A matatu for a job

The other element, the other object desired by many children was the matatu, the typical bus used for public transport, often coloured and airbrushed, that zooms through the perilous Nairobi streets filling them with music and smog. Sabiu highlights the fact that working on a matatu, “was a common objective expressed by two of the three bases we worked with”. If the Kawngware children decided to create a “flying matatu” that overtakes traffic “because of its long metal and bamboo legs that allow other cars to pass underneath it”, the kids from Mtindwa gave life to an eight-meter-long “dragon matatu”: “A difficult and huge undertaking that was made possible by the Kivuli tailors”.

The materials used and the people who worked on the carriages were, in fact, from the neighbourhood that surrounds the Kivuli centre. This was done on purpose, in order to involve the community and make it aware of the project and its social objectives. “Who could tell you how things work and what is needed to make them work better than the locals?,” Avezzano from Amani asks. “Arriving with everything already made without involving the community would’ve made no sense. Involving street children was an ambitious project and many ideas bloomed and became reality with their help”. “Our involvement was marginal, we just put our skills to the service of the children and their ideas – Sabiu goes on –. This is why it took longer than we imagined and maybe two months weren’t that long in the end. But we wanted to involve people, as well as material resources from the neighbourhood in which we worked.”

Ngong’s forest

A forest instead of a matatu for Ngong. Maybe because of the greener context due to its closeness to the famous hills that embrace Nairobi at its doorstep, but here the children’s ideas were filled with trees, flowers, animals, including a beautiful scorpion that impressed the Cherimus artists. “We imagined a magical forest and a scorpion that, however, created some problems,” Saibu remembers. “The idea was to parade a long tube with a tail and head. But then this scorpion would’ve risked falling apart in the confusional Nairobi streets, sending the message of a weak carriage”. A message that would’ve betrayed the children’s expectations. “We changed this idea during the process and the scorpion became part of the forest created with umbrellas with a double function: being beautiful and colourful as well as protecting the children from the rain that typically falls this time of the year”. And the scorpion reappeared in all of its magic.
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The situation among the children got quite difficult during one of these workshops in Ngong, I’d say it was tense. Bringing their attention to the activities needed to build the forest wasn’t easy. It was even harder to maintain. Some would sleep, others would become distracted and start distracting others whilst social workers attempted to explain the plan for the day. Suddenly Jack Matika – a street educator who had lived with the children for months, gaining their trust and respect night after night – decided it was the moment to remind the children, in a determined tone and using words that could be considered harsh, that, “being here and taking part in this activity is a choice, not an obligation and this is why those who wish to stay must respect the rules as well as the social workers and artists who purposefully came here from Italy,” to be with them. For those who decide not to accept these conditions, street life is right around the corner. This aspect – the idea that people from Italy came to Kenya to be with them, with those who are called “chokora” by the locals – had a strong impact, and it reignited hope and, in combination with many other things Jack said, brought the situation under control.

A few minutes later, Jack – who had been firm and strict with the children up to that moment – took me aside and told me that the base had been attacked that same night. In a completely different tone, he used words of compassion for the children. Some of them were attacked with blades and knifes, most of them didn’t get any sleep: “Come, I’ll show you what happened to one of them,” and he brought me over to one of the children, asking him to lift his shirt and show me his shoulder. A deep wound appeared.
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Jack surprised me, he made me understand how important it is to maintain his role, being strict at times but never losing his soft side. After all, he’s known what he wanted to do in life since he was 12 years old, when he told his mother he wanted to be a teacher. And he still wants to study and one day be able to take on a role that would allow him to influence the policies that matter. Not only for the hundreds of children who have passed through the Koinonia and Amani centres over the years, but for the hundreds of thousands who live in the streets of Nairobi. This motivates him, no matter what.

Bamboo follows strange paths, but its roots are deep

“When I saw the difficulties we faced with the first workshops, I thought about bamboo, which grows following strange paths – Okada Buluma states –. Planting it may seem like a waste of time, because years go by and nothing grows, so you’re tempted to stop cultivating it”. In truth, it’s just taking root.

la parata di carnival nairobi
A child takes part in the Nairobi carnival, the fist one ever organised in the Kenyan capital © Francesca Casassa Vigna

Similarly, “setting up this carnival may have been difficult, since every street group is different and lives a unique experience: sometimes it takes more time to understand the situation on the streets”. Time needed to build a relationship, become familiar with the children, gain their trust and participate in their lives in a new way. When you come to an understanding, everything becomes much easier and faster. “Like the Chinese bamboo that grows fast and tall after five years, all of a sudden,” Buluma concludes.

Like the matatu built by the children that symbolically took flight for one day – the 14th of April, the day of the carnival – and overcame every adversity, thought, worry, letting the children experience a different kind of day, a day to remember when the darkness and voices come back. A happy thought accompanied by laughter that might be able to keep away the urge to sniff.

The carnival is a way to threaten the status quo

“It was the first time a six-kilometre-long parade like this took place on the streets of Riruta. More than 300 children paraded with organisations and institutions and the feedback was absolutely positive. There were no problems – Avezzano reminds us –, an important message to the community. Actually two, because in addition to singing, dancing and playing music, they presented carriages built with their own hands that endured a parade that lasted more than 50 hours”.

parata carnevale nairobi
Workers from Cherimus and Amani push the flying matatu across the streets of the Riruta neighbourhood in Nairobi © Francesca Casassa Vigna

This was a way to subvert the stereotype of street children who create problems or steal. “They were seen under a different light and showed they’re able to create an event together, even from a logistical point of view”. As well as taking care of one another. In the hope that, sooner or later, someone will tell them it’s time to leave the streets and go back home. What the educators from Koinonia have been doing for 20 years, with Amani’s help.


*Darajart is a residence programme for international artists who stay as guests in the Amani centres. Darajart was born from an idea of Marco Colombaioni, co-founder of Cherimus, who died in 2011. Daraja means “bridge” in Swahili. In Marco’s mind, Darajart was a way to build bridges for unexpected encounters between the world of art and Nairobi’s pulsating life. His idea was to invite artists from different disciplines to live in Kibera, the largest shanty town in Sub-Saharan Africa. The pilot edition of Darajart took place in 2015. The following events were held in 2017 and 2018, during Carnival! Nairobi.

Translated by

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