“A carnival in Nairobi? They’ll think we’re crazy”

Una conversazione con Jane Wanjiru e Mary Osinde, educatrici di strada coinvolte nel progetto Carnival! Nairobi, organizzato da Cherimus, Koinonia Community e Amani.

During an afternoon break between one workshop in Ngong and another in Kawangware, I went with Ibrahim Nehme, writer-in-residence of the Darajart project, and Elisa Simoncelli, filmmaker and volunteer at Amani for Africa, to Mother House, one of the rescue centres for street children run by Koinonia Community and Amani. There we met street educators Jane Wanjiru (JW) and Mary Osinde (MO), who were previously present and provided support at the various art workshops held by Cherimus as part of the Carnival! Nairobi project. They talk about their relationship with the “bases”: street communities where children and young people involved in the project live.

Mary, what do you think about the workshops we’re organizing with the kids living on the street?
This project is very positive because it gives street kids the space to be creative, to share their ideas and even… laugh! We’ve seen some of the kids helping each other to draw and express themselves. I can say that the drawings are very useful because they allow us to imagine what these guys would like to be in the future. This could help us especially in the rehabilitation process of some children. Part of this work was useful in view of the International Day of the Street Children celebrated on 12 April, considering that some organisations could take inspiration from the Carnival! Nairobi and maybe reply it. It’s a good thing that there is an exchange of good practice between organisations and institutions.

Kamau, one of the kids of Carnival! Nairobi
Kamau, one of the kids of Carnival! Nairobi

What does it mean to be a street educator?
MO: When we go out on the street we meet these young boys. Over three months we try to create a bond: they know our names, we trace the houses from where they fled in order to meet their families before they enter our centres. Meanwhile, we are with them, we do activities, eat and spend time together. They share their thoughts with us and sometimes they open up and start to tell us about why they left home and ended up on the street.

JW: We mainly go to the suburbs of Nairobi. We talk to the boys on the street and we try to contact their families. We try to involve them in many activities like football. We usually do the same with the girls. We also organize a tournament for street children involving the different bases, to unite them. The bases are different from each other, they don’t do the same things, sometimes there have different dynamics.

Through this tournament the bases know and recognize each other, and therefore they can help each other. Last year there was a group of girls who liked football and were looking forward to playing. They also had a coach: at the base there is a field where you can play. It was exciting for them! It was nice to involve all those bases because they had never been in contact with each other for so long. When someone changes a base now, for example from Ngong to Kawangware, we already know each other and it’s like having just one big street family.

How do you choose the children who enter the rescue centres?
MO: The selection is made for children aged between 6 and 15. In the different bases some children are younger, and age is the only criterion. Before we begin the rehabilitation process we identify their families, and if we aren’t able to do so we turn to social services.

What do you expect from this carnival?
MO: I try to imagine how they will carry the big floats and how they will wear the masks, because in Kenya nobody has ever seen anything like that. People will say, “Hey, these people are dressed up like what?”. We know the Kenyans and they may think we are crazy, but we know what we’re doing.

How many bases does Koinonia Community work with?
JW: There are many bases, but I can name a few: we have Kawangware and Sokomjinga, Strong boys, we have Vancouver and Ngong. There are many in the city: we work primarily with Central Park, CBD, Grogon, Mlango, but also Eastleigh, Mtindwa, Muturwa, Gikomba.

How are the names of the bases chosen?
JW: I think they choose their names according to what they feel they belong to. There is a sense of belonging to something: if they identify with Arsenal (the English football team) they will probably take that name. Most of the time they identify themselves with something they believe in or love. Names are chosen while talking, maybe the name comes out and someone says, “We could call ourselves like that” and so on. For example, the Strong boys feel strong, although they may actually seem weak (laughs).

A flying matatu, Carnival! Nairobi
A flying matatu, Carnival! Nairobi

As in most bases there are mainly boys, is it difficult for you doing this job being a woman?
JW: When I go to a base, I don’t sit with them at first. I just talk and say, “I’m like your sister,” so we can talk about what happens to them. When they see this approach they feel good to the point that if you have a problem they try to help you because they know you well. When there are activities you can join in and they like that. They tell us, “You can do this with us, come! Let’s go!”, so you feel safe.

In the base of Mtindwa there are some girls with their children. Why do we only find boys when we arrive in the morning?
JW: I think most of the time, especially in urban areas, girls simply sleep somewhere in the morning. There are, but they go elsewhere in the same area, hide themselves and rest.

What are your expectations for the carnival?
JW: We have many activities, but this is a new one. Some of the boys ask us: “Why do you ask us to draw?”. When they took part in the workshops and started drawing interesting things, we realised that many of them are talented, but that they never had the opportunity of expressing themselves as such. I’m eager to see the carnival, I know it will be exciting! It’s the first time we have such a thing here.

During one of the activities we built flags, how did you think it went?
JW: At first we (Victor, who is about 13 years old, and I) designed a sheet metal roof. Then we had to cut the shapes from the fabrics and I thought: “Who knows how this will work…”, but then we did it, we cut the zig-zag fabric and it worked well.

Was Victor the happiest boy in the world at that time?
JW: Yes, and he’s looking forward to coming to the next workshop tomorrow!

Chiara Avezzano, Jane Wanjiru and Mary Osinde
Chiara Avezzano, Jane Wanjiru and Mary Osinde

How are the bases organised? We have understood that all of them have leaders, someone to whom the group can refer. How does this kind of society work, are there some rules?
JW: I think these young people, girls and boys, live like a family. In a family system there’s a leader, like a father or a mother. And the boys follow this person: if the leader tells them to do something, everyone will follow him. For example, children on the streets are often addicted, and sometimes when we talk to them they’re told to put away the drug, everyone does so because they listen to the leader. This is a rule that they follow. Another rule is that they must be there for each other and help each other out: if you have something you have to share it with the others; if one of them is beaten, the others will fight to protect him. This is the most beautiful thing: they live like a family.

Is the leader the oldest one or are there other criteria?
JW: In most cases leaders are the oldest ones, but another element of leadership is the time they spent in the base. There are people who stay for a week and then leave, some stay for a month, and others stay on the same base for years.

Do you try to build up a relationship with the leader to gain access to the base?
MO: Yes, the leaders are those who can help you access the base. They’re also the ones who can protect you if something happens.

What was the biggest challenge you had to face?
MO: When I started off it was a big challenge because I am a woman. Many people on the street are drug users and at first you are a bit afraid of them, but after two or three days they were already very friendly. It is essential to introduce yourself because there are people who approach them, beat them, slap them, even the police. But if they know who you are, you are safe.

How has the situation changed since you started? Are there fewer children on the street?
MO: Yes, I am talking about this side of the city (Dagoretti, Kawangware, etc.), the number of boys is decreasing. But further into the city centre there are still many of them because when you rescue one, others arrive. Now the government is also beginning to look after their protection. Perhaps in five years’ time we will have fewer children on the streets.

Mary Osinde working with the boys
Mary Osinde working with the boys

Your objective is to reunite children with their family, what happens when a child has no family?

MO: Some children don’t have parents. That’s when we rely on relatives. No one is born without a father and a mother, we usually trace the family and even if it is very far away, we reach it.


During the art workshops we felt welcome, we received respect and affection. What is the perception of other people who don’t live on the street? We know that there’s discrimination against them. Once there was a girl in the neighbourhood who teased them, calling them animals. Do you think the carnival could question this perception?
MO: People consider these guys as thieves. They are afraid they can hurt them. People from the highest social classes in particular judge them because of the way they dress, because they are dirty, and they wonder what they eat. We are waiting for the carnival because at that moment we will be with them and our hope is that people can look at them differently. Many times they have a negative perception of us too: they ask themselves/wonder “How can you do this work?” The Carnival is a way to make the community communicate with the youth.

We conclude this conversation by recalling a drawing made at Kawangware. It was Mavo’s drawing, in which he designed a beautiful hardware store. On one side there was a landscape, a dawn. Or a sunset perhaps. Next to it he wrote “Land of Horror”. So we asked him the reasons why he wrote that and he replied that they call the police “horror” because sometimes the police arrive and beat them for no reason, as if they had no value. How can the carnival and other initiatives such as International Street Children’s Day help on a political level?
JW: I think that this carnival, this party, in which people will see us all together will raise questions and I think our answer will be to make people understand that these people are important, they are human beings like everyone else and it is only because of some problems that have ended up on the street. I think most people think they have simply run away from home, while there are many factors that push a young person to make this choice. It’s important to try to understand what those reasons are before getting an idea. Even in the case of police officers, the reason they behave in that way is that they think they are thieves and that, in some cases, they can be associated with criminals and other situations that society doesn’t accept.


 Discover more about NGOs Cherimus and Amani for Africa.

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