Cartwheels, improv, and lessons in trust

For children cast into the world's streets by poverty, disease, war, natural disasters, and other ills, life is desperate. The United Nations Children's Fund has estimated that, globally, up to 100 million youngsters live or at least work on the street. Some have contact with their families; others are on their own. Rejected by society, some street children have become victims of police brutality and "social cleansing." But in Kenya and Guatemala, at least, there is hope - in programs to give these youngsters refuge and restore their dignity.

On good days, Simon Muturi could make 200 shillings (about $2.50) - begging, stealing, getting handouts from passersby. From the time he was 9, he had a lot of freedom, he sniffed a lot of glue.

"I don't miss the street," he says today, 14 years old and all the wiser for it. "Even though we [made] money, it's no good. Here, after supper, you have nothing to do - just go to sleep. Then you wake up, and you have tea and bread. In the street, sometimes it rains, and you can't get a verandah, and you don't have a blanket, and when you wake up there is never any tea ... never ever bread."

"Here" is a cramped, make-shift compound in Nairobi's Kangemi slum that houses Shangilia Mtoto Wa Africa - Rejoice, Child of Africa - an acrobatics and drama school, a classroom, a playground, and a dormitory all in one. For Simon - once one of the tens of thousands of young boys and girls roaming this city's streets - it's home.

According to Leah Ambwaya, who administers the Child Life Fund - a state umbrella organization for street children programs - there are, out of a population of 30 million, more than 250,000 youngsters living on Kenya's streets today, most in the capital. Wide-eyed and pleading, they wrap themselves around pedestrians' legs. They approach cars stopped in traffic and press their faces up against the closed windows. They snatch purses and gold chains, pick leftover food out of garbage dumpsters, and buy glue off shoemakers. "It makes us funny," says Simon. "It makes us forget about the rain."

"The numbers are growing, and the situation is appalling," says Ambwaya. Increasingly, the children are orphaned because of HIV. But there are other reasons for ending up on the street. At a time when Kenya is in the worst economic crisis since its 1963 independence, many of the youngsters have run away from parents unable to feed them. Others were sent out by their families to work or beg. The problem in Kenya - as in several other Africa countries, such as Angola and South Africa - is becoming endemic. Today, 14- and 15-year-olds are having their own children - giving birth on the streets to a whole new generation of babies without a future.

There are about 385 various programs in Kenya - including homes, schools, orphanages, drop-in centers - which help an estimated 50,000 children, Ambwaya says.

Shangilia is among the most imaginative. The 150 residents, ranging in age from 2 to 16, are being taught to act: They study music, acrobatics, and improvisation between academic classes; practice skits and plays; perform regularly; and dream of one day, maybe, becoming stars.

Running the whole show is Ann Wanjugo - once one of Kenya's premier stage actresses. The stout Kikuyu woman with cropped hair and a wide smile left the theater seven years ago to start a small drama program for street children.

"My idea," she recalls, "was to direct a troupe. I thought I would teach theater and send them off to find shelter elsewhere. But the problem was they had nowhere to go. The girls were gang raped on the streets. The boys got into fights. No one went to school. You can't teach theater to kids who are hungry and hurt and illiterate ... and so then we dreamed up Shangilia."

Standing in front of the courtyard "stage" recently, Ms. Wanjugo watches as the kids launch into a chorus of "We are the World." Barefoot, and dressed in everything from oversized overalls and faded pink tutus to traditional African kikois, the youngsters - all skinny, all with shaved heads - are perched atop six desks pushed together, swaying back and forth to the beat of a drum. They clap, stumble now and then over English pronunciation, and keep their eyes on the woman in charge.

The hardest lessons they must learn are things that, ideally, families teach. "The kids don't know anything about self-respect, or trust, or responsibility.... And these are not things one learns in a classroom." The way to instill these values, Wanjugo continues, is through experience - and through the arts.

Making human pyramids and spotting each other's cartwheels teaches the kids something about relying on one another. Working as a team makes them more responsible. Performing gives them confidence. The recognition they receive boosts their sense of self. And the dreams they build give them hope.

It has not been easy. Shangilia operates on a shoestring budget of about $3,500 a month in donations. The kids eat, sleep, play, study, and rehearse in the same six rooms.

In the early days, Wanjugo recalls, the children fought all the time. Older ones would abuse the younger. The younger would steal from the older. The babies would cry all night, and the girls would wake up from nightmares screaming and asking to sleep in Ann's bed. The children would urinate anywhere. They would play tricks on the teachers. They would lie. And then they would run away, back to the streets.

With time, Wanjugo's respect for the children has begun to win her theirs.

"Our street friends say we are foolish to be here because we are commanded to do this and that," says Peter Mutue, a 13-year-old with a little scar under his right eye. "When we wake up, we clean the floors of the compound, for example. Our friends out there say they could not do that. But they don't know that it is they who are the foolish ones."

A runaway, Peter was brought into Shangilia two years ago after release from juvenile jail, where he had served time for trying to snatch a tourist's necklace. His mother occasionally comes from upcountry to visit him. "She begs me for money, and if I have any, I give it to her," he says. "But usually I don't have."

Peter dreams of becoming an actor like Sylvester Stallone. Or perhaps a butcher. "I would sell lots of beef and have money for my family," he says. "And for Ann."

Wanjugo - who has no children of her own - is known on the streets of Nairobi as "Mama Shangilia."

"I love her," says soft-spoken Peter Mwangi, 16. "When I grow up, I will come back and take care of her. "I will take her to the theater. I will be able to buy her a Coke at intermission ... and say thank you for it all."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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