In light of Comic Relief last week, I thought I would write a post on my working with children in Africa.
When I was 22years old, I decided I wanted to do some voluntary work, you could say it was a bit of a calling. I’m a practicing Christian and at the time was searching for something rewarding in life, so through a member of my church, I organised to go and work with a guy called Ben out in Nairobi, Kenya.Ben works for an NGO (non-governmental organisation) called Nyumba Ya Tumaini (translated to House of Hope) which provides a rehabilitation programme, getting kids off the ‘street’ and safely homed in a shared house, where they have the opportunity to go to school or college. Most of the children living on the streets have found themselves here through difficult family circumstances, whether it be from abusive homes, drug-taking families, poverty where the parents just can’t afford to support them, or runaways.
I had never met Ben before, and knew very little about what I was getting myself in for. I decided I didn’t want to put a time limit on my volunteering, so I purchased a one-way ticket in order to gain as much out of the experience as I could. Arriving in Nairobi, I was greeted by Ben and a friend of his at the airport and driven back to the house I was going to share with Ben. It was in a gated compound as most of the houses are, so I felt quite safe. This was the beginning of what was my biggest eye opener and emotional rollercoaster!
Over the years, Ben has befriended many of the children on the streets in the city and invited them along to the feeding programme at his church on a Sunday. An opportunity for the boys to have some prayer over them, and be watered and fed. These boys live in solitude, addicted to sniffing a glue substance from empty plastic bottles. All of which get confiscated by the police if they are found with them- but they cleverly hide them in
the sleeve of their over-sized jackets and clothes. They regularly beg and I heard their choice of ‘weapon’ for threatening, is their own human faeces! A lot of them have aids and other illnesses, and sleep rough in doorways of shops. Ben introduced me to a few of them on the street. They know him, and he knows them. Most aren’t comfortable coming along to the church, but would rather turn up for the food and game of football.
Ben’s church is very evangelical and the worship is vibrant and uplifting. The boys aren’t allowed inside the service, so they congregate outside, huddled by a tree and wait for it to end. Then we join them after and the vicar says a prayer. We take their bottles off them during this time- but there is always someone who manages to keep hold of his on the sly! This is followed by a feeding programme where we all get together to eat outside and a chance for the boys to play football. More often than not, this is their main hot meal of the week, so it’s a very poignant occasion.
As Ben’s friendship develops with the children and the trust is built, the boys have the opportunity to live in the orphanage. The house is in a district called Rongai. It is a safe place for them to live and receive the basic needs of water, food, clothes and have a place to sleep and call their own. Ben has 2 social workers and a house mama working and living there at any given time. Once they are living in the home, we have the resources to re-connect them with family members (although sadly, many of these families reject them and are too poor to take them back) and enrol them at local schools to be placed within the education system once again.
The home receive donations of food and clothes through members of the church family and during my time there, were also given a handful of baby chicks so that the full grown chickens could provide them with eggs, both to consume themselves but also to sell on as a form of income. These boys are very loving and caring. It was wonderful seeing them thriving at school and bonding like a big family. They loved me visiting and were always fascinated with my camera and inquisitive to know about England and where I come from. The conditions of the house were basic. The mama prepared all of the food outside and the rooms in the house had mattresses and bedding sprawled everywhere. There wasnt always electricity because the money for the bills would often be stolen by either a child in the home or (believe it or not) one of the social workers! When the boys weren’t at school they were entertaining themselves with rapping, or ball games within the compound. A couple of the older children were very clever and skilled with their hands. One of them would make these aeroplane models from scrap metal he would find, he was so creative and full of passion and enthusiasm.
As part of the social responsibility to the community, the boys at NYT came up with a brilliant idea of how they can give back to the society as a way to give thanks. Already the boys had set up ‘step-in’ sessions where the young people from the community come to the home and are provided with soap and water so they can shower, after which the boys give out clean clothes that they have outgrown. This ministry was not just limited to the young only, the older ones in the community were also blessed with clothes and shoes that are donated but are of bigger sizes and consequently not of great use to the boys. The boys at NYT are also involved in helping out in community work in the area like filling potholes so cars can have an easy passage due to the nature of the rough road conditions. They are also active in assisting the elderly in their shambas and shopping for them in the nearest shops.
As the orphanage take in new young people, they are also required by law to let those past 18years leave the family of NYT. An exit plan is put into place to help them to build their lives outside the NYT family and become responsible citizens. It is also to find employment for those who have finished their college training so they are able to fend for themselves. The plan consists of providing them with a rented flat and essentials like bedding, utensils, food and bills for 6mths so that they are stable enough to move forward on their own and independently. This plan gives hope to the younger boys so that they can see there is a future for them.
As always, these charities and organisations have their challenges and more so in the nature of this work. There are cases at times of young people who still yearn for life back to the streets. Mainly caused by the need at the home for all to ensure that rules and regulations are adhered to at all times. Since most of the boys come from the streets there are those who find it difficult to cope with the set rules and hence opt to go back to the life they were living. Others will go back to the streets for a quick fix (drugs) and end up not coming back. It’s terribly upsetting. Despite this, most of them return and request they be taken back, however this all depends on what kind of impact their disappearance has had on the others and also how many times that person has run away!
Living and working in Africa was certainly tough. Trying to get simple tasks/ jobs for the home done was hard enough let alone daily routine like jumping on and off buses to get anywhere. At times we could wait up to an hour for one bus to come along and even then they were always packed to the rim, so you couldn’t always get on! Organising anything with ‘officials’ was always a waste of time, because you would set a meeting time and no one would turn up, or they would cancel. Every day I woke up, my head was full of new ideas of how we can do this for the boys, or help with this, or organise that etc etc, but the frustration of it all was that your hands are totally tied. The pace is slow, the funds aren’t there and what’s fundamentally heartbreaking is that most of these children and adults are corrupt and sadly untrustworthy.
After two months of living in Ben’s shoes, relying on his company at all times because it was too unsafe for me to do anything or go anywhere on my own, I needed to say goodbye to the many friends I had made and leave behind lots of mended boys who were once broken. I have never forgotten my time there and I always hope that my experience left a positive impact on their lives.