A VACANT lot near one of the most prestigious shopping centers in Nairobi, Kenya, hidden from public view by trees and bushes, is home for a small community of street children.
The number of boys staying here varies day to day from 20 to 40. They range in age from about 12 to the early 20s and live in tiny dome-shaped huts of plastic and cardboard, sleeping on newspapers and bits of discarded foam rubber.
The boys eat whatever they find in the trash or buy food with money begged or earned from collecting and selling waste paper - for less than the equivalent of one cent a pound.
Maina explains why he lives in this childrens' ghetto, one of a growing number in Nairobi and in many other African cities. The 14-year-old never knew his father. And his mother couldn't afford to raise five children alone. So in October, he moved to this chuom, Nairobi street slang for childrens' ghetto.
The number of street children in Africa is growing rapidly, according to Peter Dalglish, founder and executive director of Street Kids International, a private organization based in Toronto that has programs around the world.
Mr. Dalglish lists a variety of reasons for this increase: Economies in most African countries are declining, and rural-to-city migration is swelling. This leaves many families too poor to afford the cost of raising children even by minimal standards. Some children are pushed out onto the streets by alcoholic or abusive parents.
Also, AIDS, tribal clashes (especially in Burundi and Kenya), and wars in some countries are leaving many children parentless and on their own, he adds.
``People are just now beginning to wake up to the problem of street children in Africa,'' Dalglish says. One morning recently at the chuom near the shopping center in Nairobi, several boys were playing checkers on hand-painted cardboard. Two boys were playing with a dog that lives with them. Their clothes were blackened with the grime of street life.
Kids seen as dangerous
Seen by much of the public as lazy, dirty, sometimes dangerous, most street children work hard at surviving. The younger ones often beg from morning until late in the evening. Older ones collect waste paper to sell for recycling, helping clean up the city in the process.
Given a chance, such as a stay at one of only a handful of privately supported shelters for street children in Nairobi, the few who can be accommodated quickly wash their clothes and take showers. Their ``tough'' street faces melt back into childhood gentleness when a visitor meets them on their own territory and is willing to hear their stories.
Most street kids yearn for a chance to go back to school, to a family that wants and can afford them - even minimally, and to eventually get a job, they tell anyone who listens, including this reporter who interviewed some of them in Nairobi, Kenya, and Bujumbura, Burundi.
John, a street boy in Nairobi, says prospective employers chase him away when they learn he's been living on the streets. Girls are often branded as prostitutes and find it difficult to find a marriage partner when it is known they have lived on the streets.
Asked what he'd like to do, Maina, holding a discarded magazine about trucks, says: ``I'd like to be a mechanic.'' But he doesn't go to school. ``I don't have clothing for school [uniforms are required in Kenya],'' he says.
Estimates of numbers vary
Dalglish defines street children as ``kids who live, work, and sleep in the streets, who have limited contact with their parents, and are under age 16.''
Estimates of the numbers of street children worldwide run from UNICEF's guess of 30 million up to 100 million. Many are found in South American cities. Dalglish says there may be 150,000 street kids in Africa, spread out over some 50 cities. But no one is very sure about the numbers anywhere.
Counting them is ``almost impossible; they move around so much,'' says David Blumenkrantz of Undugu Society, a private group based in Nairobi that helps street children. A 1989 study by Kenyan researchers estimated there were 3,600 street children in Nairobi, but that ``sounds low'' today, Mr. Blumenkrantz says.
``In the last year alone, [in Nairobi] we've seen an incredible increase in kids begging,'' he says. Social workers urge the public not to give the children money, because handouts help draw more of them to the streets.
Programs for street children in Africa are still few, however, and reach only a fraction of the youths. Experts like Blumenkrantz and Dalglish are calling for greater awareness of the needs of street children and greater efforts by both private groups and governments to help them.
Community response varies
Community response in Africa to the issue of street children ranges from police arrest and temporary detention in some countries, including Kenya, to establishment of private day or overnight shelters where meals, health care, and sometimes rudimentary education are offered.
Dalglish urges a broader approach: more efforts to make education affordable so there aren't so many school dropouts on the streets; technical training; and loans to help poor families start or expand small businesses so they can better afford to keep their children at home.
Blumenkrantz argues that getting the children back to their families is the best solution when possible. But Madeline Njeri, a social worker employed by Undugu Society, says, ``They run away from home due to poverty; parents can't maintain them.'' Some who do go home find themselves in the same grinding conditions they ran away from and run away again.
Dalglish says even occasional contact with their families is better than none, however, and says that residential programs, the primary response in Latin America to street children, separate children from their families. He prefers spending less on ``bricks and mortar'' and more on basic medical care, education, legal aid, technical training, and helping kids learn to fill out job applications.
``If we're able to help them with a job, a place to stay flows from that,'' he says.
Education better than aid
The key to reducing the flow of children to the streets, and to helping those already on the streets is ``education,'' says the Rev. Arnold Grol, a Dutch missionary and chairman and founder of Undugu Society. Children should be offered residential shelters only on condition that they agree to return to school, Fr. Grol says.
Blumenkrantz hopes to attract financial support for renting a temporary home outside of Nairobi for young street boys who can't be reunited with their own families. They would then be referred from the home to adoptive or foster parents. But Kenya's poor economy lessens the likelihood of finding supportive families for such a scheme, he says.
Many street children are still welcome at their own home. Some mothers even come searching for their children living in street ghettos, but often they refuse to go back.
Maina, for example, occasionally visits his mother, who lives in a slum at the edge of Nairobi. She tries to convince him to stay with her, but he refuses. Hard as it is, life on the streets is sometimes not much harder than life at home, and it offers more freedom.
``When you're small and you have 100 shillings [equal to about $1.50], you don't care where you sleep,'' says Ms. Njeri of Undugu Society.
And, she adds, some children balk at joining a program for them with fixed hours and rules. ``Once you put order in their lives - they don't like that.''
Needs $7 loan to start business
Social workers find that after a child has been on the streets a year or two, rehabilitation - such as return to school and home life, is very difficult. Many also become accustomed to sniffing glue, and almost always carry a plastic bottle of it around with them.
But, Njeri says, ``you keep trying.'' Her motto: ``Don't lose patience. Rehabilitation takes a long time.''
Some children, like 19-year-old Kamau, are not welcome at home even if they want to go back.
``My parents died,'' he says. He and his brothers and sisters moved in with their grandmother. ``She said we were disturbing her.'' So, a year ago, he moved into the same choum where Maina lives, near the shopping center.
Kamau would like to do what he sees Kenyan men doing every day -
sell cut flowers. He thinks he would need a loan of about $7 to buy his first bunch and start his business.
Meanwhile, across Africa, younger and younger children are taking to street life, Dalglish says. ``We used to work with 12-to-17 year-olds.'' Now, programs serve children as young as five, he says.
Parents chased him out
One of the newer and younger street children is seven-year-old Etienne, who stays in one of several small, privately run shelters in Bujumbura, Burundi, a tiny central African country with a per-capita income of $210 a year.
(Massive tribal violence following a failed coup in October resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 people and displacement of several hundred thousand others inside the country, according to United Nations officials.)
Etienne, at an age when many children are in their first year or two of primary school, has a job of sorts. ``I sell plastic sacks,'' he says. Buying them in bunches, he sells them one at a time on the streets or in local, outdoor markets. With his few cents profit a day, he buys food, and some clothes, he explains, as he sits on a ledge outside a shelter house supported by Terre des Hommes, an international charity. Etienne's parents are alive, but he says ``they chased me out'' after he lost some money one day.
Emmanuel, who is 13, also stays at the shelter. He left home two years after his mother died. ``My father likes to get drunk. When I go home, he beats me. A lot.'' So, Emmanuel says, ``I stay here.''
At the shelter, at least a couple dozen boys sleep on reed mats on the cement floor. They clean the house daily and must ``buy'' their meals for the equivalent of a fraction of a penny each, requirements the program staff says help foster responsibility in the boys. Emmanuel hands me a ticket he has purchased so I can eat the breakfast of tea and bean porridge.
``You have to love them, and teach them to respect others,'' says Burundi social worker Jean Mazuru of street children. Street life, especially for younger children, can be tough and dangerous, he says.
Many younger and weaker boys are forced by older street children to pay ``protection'' money not to be beaten up, Mr. Mazuru says. Sometimes they are arrested by police for vagrancy, but usually they're released the next day.
Police and public attitudes toward street children could harden in African cities if there are more incidents like the brazen robbery recently in downtown Nairobi by eight street boys. They snatched 62,000 shillings (almost $1,000) from a businessman walking to a bank. A foreign resident in Nairobi recently had her handbag grabbed by street boys.
Living in cardboard hovels
Not all street kids are boys.
Florence, aged 17, knows street life, and its dangers, all too well.
She is one of a still relatively small but growing number of girls in Africa who live on the streets. One of seven children, Florence ran away from a boarding school, where, she says, ``we used to be beaten a lot.'' She later ran away from a 24-hour shelter for street girls after a quarrel with the staff.
For at least six months, she lived in a collection of plastic and cardboard hovels in a downtown alley with several other girls and about a dozen boys.
Though some boys in her chuom tried to protect the girls, others beat them up. Some girls were raped, she says.
Asked about prostitution, which Undugu Society social worker Njeri says is common among street girls, she replies: ``Many friends do it, but I don't.''
Florence has been in and out of courtrooms and police detention cells, apparently on vagrancy charges. ``Once I was sentenced to go home,'' she recalls.
Now she says she sleeps at home. But most days she comes to a drop-in center run by Undugu Society, where youth can wash their clothes, get meals, some academic instruction, and learn karate.
At the center she hangs out with her friends - all veterans of the streets.
And if you happened to see them laughing and talking together on the lawn of the rescue center, you might not know they were street kids at all.