The brothers: Nairobi’s street children

Brothers of St. Charles Lwanga (©

There are growing numbers of street children throughout Africa. They converge on the cities, hoping to make enough money to build a better life for themselves back in their village. However, few succeed. Many end up on the street, stealing, begging, selling things and often sniffing glue to make life bearable. In Nairobi alone, there are 120,000 street children. The Brothers of Saint Charles Lwange is one of the organisations trying to help these kids: to give them shelter and some education and ultimately rehabilitate them. 

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: October 12, 1995


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “The Brothers”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. 

More and more children are appearing on the streets of Africa’s cities. Some plan to stay for a few years to earn money and build a life for themselves back in their villages. But the majority winds up on the street because of growing urbanisation, poverty and AIDS. The Kenyan capital Nairobi is estimated to have a minimum of 120,000 street children. Most spend their time begging, stealing or collecting paper which they sell afterwards. They sniff glue to ward off the cold and to make life on the street more bearable. A number of organisations in Nairobi are trying to provide assistance to these kids. The Brothers of St. Charles Lwanga is one of them. When the Brothers arrived in Kenya in 1990, says Father Peter Matsika, one of their chief missions was to help the street children.

The vision of this project first and foremost we want to see the children who are neglected on the street, they are masters of their own destiny. Out of that it also comes in the life of the Brothers that we see Christ in the children. We want to see the children we are assisting, they are also able to fit in the society, just like any other normal children.

With the help of funding organisations, including the Dutch branch of Caritas, the Brothers of St. Charles Lwanga operate five centres for street children. I went along to one of them with John Muromba. 

This is basically a slum with over 800 people. The slum is called Kariobangi. People here stay in congested environment and basically the living conditions are very, very poor. Majorily they are unemployed, many of them. Some of them are having low-income jobs and we have mainly single mothers, young single mothers with a lot of children. We could have like six per family in this particular area. Many of them are unemployed, as I said, and so this centre becomes a rescue point for the mothers and particularly for the children. 

The centre includes an informal school for 200 or so kids. The children are recruited from the street, says John Muromba, through a drop-in centre.

The drop-in is an attraction point for children from the streets. It is difficult to tell a child from the streets to come to an informal school straight away. So we begin with a drop-in, where they come. They wash, they eat, and then they are talked to by the social workers and that becomes our first point. From the drop-in, we can select those going to the informal school. Secondly, we select those going to the vocational training centres, depending again on age. 

But before the children or teenagers go for schooling or vocational training, there’s a long process of getting them accustomed to normal life again. Many of them having been living on the streets for up to four years and are unable to function in normal society. The first step, says Sadata Munyoki (sp?), one of the social workers, is to get in touch with the children. 

We use different methods to get these boys, mainly the field worker. We get some boys also from the court. And also referral cases which may be referred to us by other organisations, but our main approach is through field work. EB: So, the children don’t actually come to you. You go to them. We usually go them. EB: How old are these children generally? Aged between 9 and 20. EB: And they’ve been on the street for a long time? Most of them have, between 3 to 4 years. EB: And what have they been doing on the street? They scavenge for their living. Some do small crimes like pickpocketing. Some sell old papers to raise income. Also scavenge from the dust bins for food. Once they come into our centre, first I talk to them. I have to interview them to know their location, that is where they come from, whether they have parents because we don’t deal with orphans. I have to establish if they have relatives or a mother or a father or a close relative. Then, once I have established that, I also interview the boy why he has been to the streets, and then I invite him to the centre. Here in the centre, apart from other activities, I offer him lunch and other activities like games. I also teach them a bit of calculations, language, indoor games like cards. They also play football. EB: These activities that you organise during the day, they’re simply to try to rehabilitate the children? Yeah, the main purpose is to rehabilitate these boys. To me, it means that the person has changed. But when I say changed, it is difficult to change a person. But now the boy has adjusted to what the society sees as a normal way of life. That boy can sit. You can discuss with him. He can tell you his problems. He can be corrected. He can be advised, and he’s ready to do something for his life. He values himself now as a person. EB: And once this happens, the children won’t go back to the street. There are no dropouts. No, once they are rehabilitated, they don’t go back. But during the process, I wouldn’t deny it, during the process of rehabilitation, some go back to the streets. But those who are fully rehabilitated, they never go back to the streets. EB: The ones who drop out, do they come back afterwards? Some do. I have two cases who have come back. Once they come back, I don’t throw they out. I still give them a chance. Once they are rehabilitated, the ones of school age, I take them to schools. The ones who are past school age, I take them for skills training, either carpentry. We have a workshop at ??. I also take them for mechanics. I attach them to a ?? in the ghetto. Those are the main skills training which I offer. EB: Do you also speak a lot with the children? Yeah, I offer them counselling because I have to establish a trust, a friendship because if they don’t trust me, I cannot work with them. They have to see me as a protector. They should not see me as an enemy. They really fear police or any person who is interfering with their freedom. So I have to talk with them almost on a daily basis. EB: What type of things do they tell you? They usually share with me their life in the streets, mainly which is not good, the problems they have faced there. Sometimes they are beaten by mob justice. They are arrested by police, and their experiences especially in police cells. I don’t know how to put it. It’s really bad. 

Because of the neighbourhood, that’s why you see these small children, they also come and make use of the facilities here under the Catholic Church. That’s why you see so many young, young children playing here. 

Mongi is one of the teenagers who recently arrived in the centre and had been living in the street since 1989. 

Because my mother was not here. I live by here alone. EB: You came here alone. You came from upcountry. Yeah, I come from upcountry. EB: But why did you come to Nairobi alone? For something for eat. EB: And what did you do on the street? I survived for searching and selling. EB: How much did you earn a day? Only 20 shillings. EB: And that was enough to live. No. It’s so little. EB: Did you also sniff glue? Yeah. I started sniffing glue in 1990 after three months because it is taking me all firey. Forget my EB: problems. yeah, my problems. EB: When did you stop taking the glue? The day I come here. EB: Were you part of a gang? Yeah. One here. He’s one of my gang. And others. There are so many. EB: How many people were there in the gang? We are still 14. EB: 14 in total. Yeah, but he was crazy. EB: Why was he crazy? Because of bhang and glue. 

Can they act one play for you? EB: Sure. Just a short one. 


Theatre and acting are an important element in many programmes for street children. Since many of the street kids are illiterate and don’t speak English, plays offer them an opportunity to express their creativity. This play, for instance, is about a domestic worker who gets fired by his employer. The domestic worker is then cheated by a thief who sells him a stolen radio. As the play ended, one of the teenagers in the hall started making a racket.

It’s a new guy. It’s a new person who has come. I maybe need to find out. He’s using drugs. That’s why I have to talk to him. EB: He’s taken drugs. I suspect so. This is the first day for him to come. EB: And this is the way they usually are when they come. Some are just coping on themselves. EB: What do you do with a kid like this? How do you start off? I start talking to him, asking his name, where he is coming from, why he has come here. Then he will tell me, maybe I was told by friends. I have heard from friends. I have heard about you. So, I have come to see what assistance I can get. 

The poem, they are trying to describe our school here, the drop-in centre. They have found a place where they can be assisted. They also learn in the same institution. They also praise the teacher who has been guiding them, and they feel that Charles Brother is like their pillar in life. EB: Both this and the play is something they devised themselves. Yes, I usually give them a chance to express themselves either in action or words because I have to tap their talents to know what each can do. EB: How old are they? They are between the teens and the 20. EB: So will most of them go to school or most of them receive training? Most of them will receive training.

I would like to become a pilot. EB: A pilot! Yes, exactly. Then I will take you from here in Nairobi to your home in Holland safely. EB: And you, what do you want to become? Me? He’s saying that he was in school and he dropped out. He would like to go back to school. EB: And what does he want to do when he’s older? He’d like to become self-employed. EB: And you? I want to be a driver. EB: What type of driver? Like a staff bus driver. Ferry driver.

Once they come to us, they don’t trust anybody because of the experience they have undergone in the streets, the way they are treated by the public and the police. So, to me the first few weeks is very difficult for me because I have really to keep showing them that I appreciate them, I love them, and I like them. Then after some time, they start changing slowly. They will always be willing to accompany me to the parent and show me where the parent is because you have to note some of these children when they come here, they are really bitter. They blame their parents for them being in the streets, which I agree with them. They feel that the parents have failed them. So I also try to reconcile the boy and the parents, to show that maybe this mother, this father failed to take care of you because of other reasons, maybe poverty, family problems, and that’s why they have failed to take care of you like another child. EB: Is one of the reasons that some of these kids go into the streets also because their parents are drinking or taking drugs? Yes. Parents who are living in the slums, a high percentage of them take also drugs and mainly alcohol, and it make them neglect their children. They don’t work so the child has no food, has no clothes. Then the child runs to the streets to fend for himself.

Once the kids and teenagers have been rehabilitated, they go to an informal school run by the Brothers of St. Charles Lwanga. The 200 pupils are put in 5 different classes, and they follow all the classes taught in the formal schools. Most of the children would not be able to cope in a regular school because they have been on the street for too long, and anyway, their parents would not be able to afford the school fees, uniforms and books. Sister Pauline is one of the teachers in the school, and she says she has to develop special materials to interest these kids. 

I get for them different materials: playing materials but learning and educative. So, I deal with them personally. I give them, say, pictures with words or a jigsaw or a puzzle. And then as I say pronounce words, they repeat after me and I teach them. I say this is a book. And then the boys running. Those who pick up quickly, with writing also. I provide them with books and pencils. EB: Do the kids find it easy to learn? They are not easy to these situations, such that even to make them to get a pencil, it’s difficult for them. They don’t like. And even to speak a few English words. They just feel that is not for them. Some of them have a bad image. They feel that they are children of the street and of the dust bin, and English is for the good children. My centre of teaching them is the love. Everything I do it in love and appreciate whatever they do, whether it is wrong or correct. I accept it. Then slowly they come to appreciate. In fact, when they have just come, they don’t even want to wash their hands. They come very dirty and so on. But I accept it like that, as they come. What they want here mainly is eating. But eventually, maybe after a year or two years, they begin picking interest in the whole exercise. EB: After a certain amount of time, do they enjoy learning? Very much. In fact, even they arrive here before me. And in the evening, you really have to chase them to go. They don’t want to go. They enjoy it very much. And then you find everywhere they are writing. If we went in the hall, they write on the floor, on the benches, on the walls. They love it very much. This how the numbers have grown so high: 200 within a short time. They go and tell their friends, and they come every time. They’re happy. I’m happy that they’re happy. Yes, they like it very much. EB: But is there really a future for these kids? They’ll go to school, but there’s so much unemployment. Can you really offer them something better, a better future? To me, there’s a future for them, say for those who are bright, give them an opportunity to continue with their education, they can make for a brighter future. And then, for those whose mind is weak, they have hand skills. This is what I have been pressing the director to get employed people to teach them skills so that if they can make shoes, they can repair watches, they can join Jua Kali and make local materials. They are very, very good. I have about three boys who are very good artists. You can’t believe it. They draw very beautiful pictures. So such children, if they are encouraged to go ahead, they could do very good work. To me, I see that given a chance, they have a bright future. EB: They all have particular talents, right? Very different. There’s no child whose useless at all. All the children have a good in a different way. 

Since the Brothers of St. Charles Lwanga began their project in 1990, they’ve managed to assist 850 children. 800 of them have been rehabilitated, says John Moromba, and are now attending the Brothers’ vocational training centre or one of the four informal schools. 

Our informal school runs parallel programmes to the formal school system in Kenya. They begin from Standard 1 up to 8. We are hoping that for the children who fit well in the informal schools, we shall register them for normal examinations that are done by all other children, and then they can later join formal schools at secondary school level. And we have had actually children from here, from the streets have already joined high schools in normal, formal schools through our informal education here. We have boys, for example, at Brothers of Charles Lwanga Seminary in Kakamega and in other schools, and we are paying fees. This is an indicator that the informal school could actually rehabilitate children and finally send them to formal schools that is high school and vocational training and even normal colleges. They’ll be an example to other street children because they have themselves been street children. That is one. Two: they will definitely assist their communities because each of them, if he is earning money, he will not forget his mother, his brothers and sisters in that particular family. 

But the Brothers don’t only try to rescue and educate street children. They’ve also established a programme, says Brother Peter Matsika, called “Mother and Child Health” to try and prevent the kids from ending up on the street in the first place. 

This programme for the parents, it’s a programme under five years where we teach the parents on the best way of bringing up the child, the best way of feeding the child, and also providing them the proper medical care. And so, this came up as a need that we found out that we found out that most of the organisations in Kenya, especially in Nairobi, they weren’t directly on the street and so they were only trying to save (?) a person who is cutting a tree from the branches and not the root, and so we have seen as a need to go back on the ground to start solving the problem from the ground so that we may in future lessen the number of street children. 

The social work office in this organisation found it a necessity to start a feeding programme for the under 5 children. This with an objective of trying to address the problem of street children at a tender age because whenever there’s a young child under 5 years, then it is possible for us to get a mother. Through educating the mother, it’s then that we are able to find out the problem. We believe that if the mothers are educated, then we have less number of children fleeing to the streets. EB: How does it actually work? Does the mother come with the child or does the child come first? How does it work? In this programme, the mothers come with their children every day, and the children are fed twice a day. So in the morning, two mothers are always on duty, so that they get educated on better nutrition. The mothers prepare porridge in the morning, this mix of soja beans and then they prepare also lunch. It may be rice, it may be dangu (?), it may be this. That’s a balanced diet for the children. Every day, two mothers are on duty to do that. EB: Are the mothers volunteers or it’s always the same mothers? These are the same mothers whose children are in the programme. So if your child is in the programme, then you have to be on duty one day a week. This is the one who is preparing the porridge. She can talk. 

One year and a half. EB: Just one child or several children are in the programme? Two are in the programme. EB: If the programme didn’t exist, would she be able to feed and clothe her children? So she’s saying, no, she doesn’t know what she could do if the programme got finished at this time. She still needs time for her children to be fed here, for her to be educated more so that she’s educated herself. 

One of the other informal schools run by the Brothers of St. Charles Lwanga is located in Ruai, about half an hour’s drive from Nairobi. When I arrived there, the Brothers were holding a seminar for the teachers who work in the informal schools. Many have never received proper training, and the seminar is designed to give them the skills they need not only to teach the children but also to provide them the support they need.  The boarding school in Ruai has over 200 pupils. Almost all of them, says Charles Mogi, a consultant for the Brothers, come from Kariobangi, the slum in Nairobi.

We prefer to bring these people here because of the congestion at the slum at St. Martin’s Kariobangi. Now here, we offer those rehabilitated children or pupils informal education, and we have from Standard 2 to Standard 6. And subsequently we have up to Standard 8 for the primary education. EB: Standard 8 is how old? Standard 8 is up to 14. EB: 14 years old. Yeah. And that is the highest primary level class. So after that, we refer the children to good secondary schools. Those ones who cannot go to secondary schools who are hard to understand or get an education, we refer them to other trade and examinations like carpentry, machinery and the like. So here we have around 200 pupils. And we are offering a boarding school for them. Those kids with parents or those we have identified the nearby relatives, they go back for holidays during recess, and the small number you have seen around are people that we have not identified the parents. So, they are in the compound the whole year. In Ruai we have teachers. We have an administrator, and we have a nurse who gives medical attention to the kids as much as she can afford. If I can say, we are limited by finance. Otherwise we could offer bigger and better places. As you can see, the place looks like shanty because iron sheeted houses, and the toilets are so far. Water is brought in by trucks. There is no rain. Such things. So, given funds, I think the Brothers have a vision toward better the place in the near future. EB: But you said the reason they were brought here is because the city is too congested, but this is a very strange environment for the children, isn’t it? It may look strange but they always long to go to the slums because there is a free world for them. They get free food, no education, no boundaries, no guidance at all. So, we prefer it here because of the isolation. So from here, the main road is about 15 minutes walk. A kid can’t go there. EB: He also can’t get any access to glue or other things here. There are no way around. No shops, nothing. It’s only the education, food and maybe the administration. 

EB: Can we ask a couple of the kids if they like it here? They are very happy being at Ruai. EB: How long have you been here? Two years. EB: And you like it here. Yes. He likes the place. EB: Why do you like it? To read. Because of education. EB: Is life much different here than in the street? Yes, because it’s good. He’s happy because he gets bed. He gets food. He gets clothing and love. EB: And you’re learning a lot too in school? Very much. EB: What do you want to do when you’re older? A pilot. 

The Brothers have yet to produce a pilot, but over the past five years, they have managed to rescue nearly 1,000 children from the streets, not many when you consider that Nairobi alone has 120,000 street children, but it’s a start. 

Arise and shine, like a young rose flower. Show yourself up, oh beautiful black child of Mama Africa. In a sad and a gloomy face, a face that has been denied the joy of being happy, a lonesome face, a face that portrays nothing but tears, bitter tears, tears of poverty, tears of the morning cold on the streets, tears of the rotten, stinking food, tears of tattered clothes, tears of no education, tears of being unwanted, tears of fear, tears of loneliness. When will all this end? Each and every day, you live as if you are not one of us. They call you names: chokora, mukuru, street kid. What do all these names mean? Do streets give birth to children? The answer is no. What you need is just a little love and a little care. So, arise and shine beautiful black child of Mama Africa! 

“The Brothers” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Werner van Peppen. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.