Drama troupe transforms street children

Kenyan youths find confidence - and a home

CHILDREN of two different worlds are on the street here in the early afternoon. One group streams out of school wearing clean uniforms and walks quickly home.

The second group is in a hurry, too: They dash up to cars at stoplights, begging for money. Their clothes are ragged and dirty. Home may be a cardboard box.

There may be 150,000 children living on the streets in Africa's cities, according to Street Kids International in Toronto, and their numbers are increasing as economies decline.

Children of the street don't usually meet the children of the other world. But their worlds came together here recently, the result of a private initiative to address a growing problem.

Some 30 street children belonging to a new drama group performed a play, ``Naaman's Maid,'' from II Kings in the Bible, for a mostly middle-class audience in a popular, downtown cafe.

The spectators, including many well-off children in fancy jeans and T-shirts, loved it.

Naaman and the Syrian king bellow their lines. The maid is not the least bit nervous. And an energetic group of ``soldiers'' doubles as an occasional chorus.

``They just need support,'' says one Kenyan audience member after applauding loudly. ``Something will come out of this; some place they need,'' he said.

Something already has come out of the program: a three-room shelter, paid for by private donations, where the core of the acting troupe now lives under adult supervision. It is one of only a handful of residences bringing children off the street in Nairobi and elsewhere on the continent.

The young actors have performed around the country and in the National Theater of Kenya since the group was formed in July by five women - two Kenyans, a Ugandan, a Briton, and an American.

After the recent cafe performance here, Porine Wangui, 12, who played the maid, explains serenely that she has been living on Nairobi's streets since last year in a chuom, slang for a children's ghetto of tiny cardboard and plastic shelters.

Porine left her parents, she says, because ``I had trouble at home ... getting food.'' And her parents could not afford school fees for all their eight children.

Juma Mwangi, 16, who delighted the cafe audience with a post-drama comedy routine that was mostly spontaneous, has been living on the streets for four years. He left home because his mother was spending most of her money on alcohol, he says.

Juma has gained a new sense of confidence through his acting and his quick wit. ``I have not practiced,'' he says. ``It's in my mind. I'm an actor. I say something - and people laugh.''

That same sense of having people pay attention is what street children need, says locally well-known Kenyan actress Anne Wanjugu. She directs the drama group, called ``Shangilia Mtoto wa Africa,'' (in Swahili, ``Rejoice, Child of Africa''). The group is known as ``Shangilia'' (``Rejoice'').

``It's important [for them] to know `someone loves me; someone cares if I get sick; someone will be there,' '' says Ms. Wanjugu, sitting on the stone steps of All Saints Cathedral. The side yard of this Anglican church downtown becomes a rehearsal studio three mornings a week.

Acting is changing the physical appearance of many of the street children, Wanjugu says. ``Three months ago they had looks of despair. They had looks of no hope. They've changed. You see their eyes brightening up.''

At a recent rehearsal, there are few sad faces and high energy among the 70-some children, mostly boys, who range in age from about eight to 18. They rehearse, sing, and perform raps and dances.

The children are paid the equivalent of $1 per rehearsal and performance, a little less than most say they earn begging or collecting scrap paper. They also are fed and receive second-hand clothing. Some 30 of them live in the group's rented house.

With a bubbling pot of donated soup and fresh loaves of bread waiting in the yard for them, Peter Mwangi, 10, and his younger brother, Samuel Muturi, 8, step forward to try imitating the older actors who played the King of Syria and Naaman in the play.

Wanjugu laughs with pleasure at their success. With no coaching from her, they have learned the parts well.

``I was chased away from school for lack of fees,'' says Peter. He began living on the street three years ago, earning about $1 a day washing dishes in a hotel, cleaning up trash at a local market, and begging. Today he is one of 30 children living in the Shangilia-run residence.

``We're going to be swamped,'' says Marilyn Dodge, an American artist living in Nairobi who helped launch Shangilia. She worked closely with Wanjugu and Kenyan filmmaker Anne Mungai.

Mungai's recent video docudrama, ``Usilie Mtoto wa Africa'' (``Don't Cry, Child of Africa''), inspired Shangilia's founding, Dodge says. Several street children in the film also helped get things rolling by pestering Ms. Mungai to keep her promise to make them all actors.

``The sky's the limit,'' says Dodge of Shangilia's future. ``This whole concept is love - for God's glory.'' The program is nonsectarian, though it receives anonymous support from a Kenyan man who says his money for the children ``comes from God.''

There are other programs in Nairobi helping street children, but few are residential and all are overcrowded. The number of street children in Nairobi was estimated in a 1989 study at 3,600, which sounds low today.

Many of the children in Shangilia, have not completed primary school, are poorly nourished, and often have been chased away from home or sent out into the streets to beg. Street children, especially girls, also face the risk of sexual abuse.

But ask the children what they want to be, and they still have dreams: Mechanic is a popular choice; or doctor, or shoe salesman.

And budding comedian Juma Mwangi? ``I want to be a driver, or a magician - or an actor,'' he says. ``I want to have my own home, and help my family.''

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